Two years ago, Brian Stokes Mitchell won a Best Actor Tony Award starring in the revival of a Tony-winning musical — Kiss Me, Kate, from 1948. Now he is back on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre, starring in the revival of another Tony-winning musical — Man of La Mancha, from 1965. It is, he says, the fulfillment of an impossible dream.
"When I was 16," he says, "I was one of the muleteers in Man of La Mancha at the Belleville Dinner Theatre in San Diego. Never did I think that I would be performing in the show on Broadway, let alone in the title role."
Stokes, as almost everyone calls the personable and multi-talented leading man, portrays both Don Quixote de la Mancha and Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, the renowned 17th-century novel on which the musical is based. The show's libretto is by Dale Wasserman, who wrote the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; the music — including the classic hit "The Impossible Dream" — is by Mitch Leigh; and the lyrics are by Joe Darion. The original production ran on Broadway for 2,328 performances.
Stokes's co-stars at the Martin Beck Theatre include Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza, the love of Don Quixote's dream, and Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza, his trusted sidekick. Mastrantonio last worked on the New York stage in 1989, al fresco in Central Park, as Viola in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Twelfth Night. Sabella made his name as Harry the Horse with Nathan Lane in the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. The director is Jonathan Kent, whose Broadway credits include Diana Rigg's Medea and Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet.
In Man of La Mancha, Cervantes is sent to prison during the Spanish Inquisition. Forced to defend himself, he begins to tell the story of Don Quixote, defender of the oppressed and righter of wrongs. "This show is so much from the heart," Stokes says. "And I think that's especially important now because of what we've been through, in New York and the world. We've become a little disconnected from that place that gives joy and wonder and laughter and makes us feel positive about life. So, in that way, the show is timeless because it talks about something that never goes out of fashion — the need to be connected to the non-cynical, to the good in the world."
Both Cervantes and Quixote provide paths to that connection, he says. "One of the many things I like about this show is that both of my characters are very close to who I am. Everybody can relate to them, particularly in terms of going up against windmills, trying to do the impossible. Everybody comes up against that at some point in their lives."
Cervantes created Quixote, so there's a lot of Quixote in Cervantes, Stokes says. "What Quixote is trying to do is to see the world not as it is, but as it ought to be. That is the character's central core. And what's so wrong with that? Ultimately, it can get you in trouble, if you're too deluded. Quixote takes his share of beatings, knocks, bumps, bruises. But he never falters from what he believes in. And the neat thing about the show is what you see happening to the other characters because of Don Quixote. They are transformed — they get caught up in his way of looking at things."
Another thing Stokes loves about the show is its score, especially its theme, "The Impossible Dream." "It's a wonderful Spanish-flavored score that will never go out of date," he says. "And 'The Impossible Dream' has been heard by so many people that it has become part of the collective consciousness of the world."
The production is a revival, but Stokes doesn't like that word. "Reviving a show has the connotation that the show might be dying. This show isn't dying. You don't revive Carmen. You just do another version of it, another realization of it. That's what we're doing. We're doing Man of La Mancha with the tools — the actors, the technology, the stage technicians, the craftsmen and women — of the new millennium. It will be fresh, and it will be true to the spirit of the original."
Stokes was born in Seattle, but he spent much of his childhood on the move — his father worked for the Navy, as a civilian electronics engineer. "I was born on Halloween," he says, "when adults put on costumes and portray characters. How perfect!"
His interest in the stage began at an early age. His older brother George took part in community theatre and school plays, and Stokes would always be in the audience. At age 6, Stokes took up the piano, and when he was 14 he enrolled in drama classes.
"I was in junior high school," he says. "I went to the San Diego Junior Theatre, which taught kids from 8 to 18 every aspect of the theatre — acting, singing, dancing, even stage management. It was great training."
These days, he and his wife, Allyson Tucker, an actress and dancer, live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They were married in 1994, after they met while both were appearing in a Broadway musical revival of Oh, Kay!
Stokes is best known for his Broadway musicals, although he achieved early success in the 1980's on television as Dr. Justin "Jackpot" Jackson in "Trapper John, M.D." and won a Tony nomination last year in the title role of August Wilson's drama, King Hedley II.
In Kiss Me, Kate he was the rakish actor Fred Graham; in Ragtime, he portrayed the persecuted black revolutionary Coalhouse Walker, Jr.; in Kiss of the Spider Woman, he took over the role of Valentin from Anthony Crivello; and in Jelly's Last Jam, he replaced Gregory Hines as Jelly. This spring, he won acclaim in the title role of Sweeney Todd, as part of The Kennedy Center's much-lauded tribute to Stephen Sondheim.
"I've always wanted to play Sweeney Todd," he says. "And now I'd love to do it on Broadway." Another impossible dream? Maybe. But the odds are good that this one, too, will come true. After all, Stokes doesn't spend much time tilting at windmills.