Brian Mitchell: Ragtime a 'Defining Moment'

Brian Mitchell: Ragtime a 'Defining Moment' Articulate. Charismatic. Vibrant.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, star of the new musical Ragtime, is all of these. Born in Seattle and raised in San Diego, Guam and the Philippines, following his father's career as an electronic engineer with the US Navy, Brian Stokes, or just Stokes as he prefers, grew up with a family with a bent for theatre.

Coming back to San Diego from the tropics he enrolled at San Diego Performing Arts for young people and built his early theatre foundation.

Mitchell . . . Stokes . . . is loving every collaborative minute of the creative process as Ragtime goes into the last weeks of rehearsals. Ragtime has an unprecedented schedule -- 10 weeks of regular rehearsals, compared to the four to six weeks of most big Broadway shows. Three weeks of tech, compared to one.

The cast, instead of working on sections of the musical at a time, has had the luxury of working with the whole creative team from day one. The Ragtime environment has developed, primarily because of the vision of Livent producer Garth Drabinsky, Mitchell said, "Into a safe, warm place to create." Mitchell believes Drabinsky wants to make a difference in the world, and he really believes the show will make a difference.

Ragtime is a cautionary tale of what Doctorow was saying of the world's future. Where did all the optimism of the first decade of the century take us? Through World War I, II, the Korean War, JFK, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Sarajevo . . . "We're in the middle of it now. Do we like where we are? We will feel a sense of our own intolerance, racism and struggle, as the story of Ragtime helps us see the world differently," Stokes said.

"I'm in heaven. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is one of the greatest roles. I am working with my favourite people. Frank Galati (director) is an inspiration, this is better than I thought it could be. If Frank was a musical, he would be Ragtime. I didn't know if I would be the first person to choose for the role. Garth chose me. Now I feel more of the role. Frank puts everything in perspective."

"The cast and crew are my 'Spirit Tribe' - making this character of Coalhouse easy. We (Coalhouse and I) are so similar. It (the character) is saying what I would like to say as an artist. Together the cast and crew have a clarity of vision mixed with a sense of responsibility."

Mitchell has been involved with the project since August of 1995, from the first workshop when the script was read. "I felt something magic, huge, special and a bit frightening. It just descended on us and it never left. Since then we have been fine tuning the script, and it is as if we are sharing the same brain. There is something odd going on. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote a great song the other day. It was deja vu, like we are feeding from the same river. I've never been in a more joyful creative womb than this."

When asked how he landed this role, Brian Stokes related his experiences as Valentin in Kiss Of The Spider Woman, a role he played on Broadway for one and a half years. After two months, Drabinsky told Stokes he had a part for him. Every couple of months, Drabinsky would remind Stokes he had this part. The part was Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime. When the Ragtime workshop was being planned, Drabinsky called Mitchell and that's how he got it. "It was luck, fate, and that X factor that is out of our control." Stokes smiles and it is infectious.

He has been joined by his spouse of two years, Allyson, who is in the ensemble, and is Ragtime Dance Captain. They met during the show Oh, Kay! and Allyson went on to work on another project, as Stokes played in Kiss of The Spider Woman. They say they are thrilled to be working closely with each other again.

"What do I do for fun?" he asked. "Write and play music. I have played piano since I was six. I like to sky dive, ski fast and go river rafting. I guess I am a Type A person in Type B clothes.

"Musically I am a lyric baritone. One of my gifts is the ability to analyze something and make it work in my body - classical, jazz, musical theatre, pop, film scores - a chameleon. I guess I am a serious actor who does musical theatre. For a comedic role, I might not be a casting director's first choice, except possibly in LA."

"You can be incredibly talented, but not have the right part to show you off. Or you get the right part but your talent isn't as strong. Who you know, networking, being blessed with good feet...it all helps."

"Isn't it interesting? At the beginning of the century, was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, starting off World War I. Now war is again in Sarajevo, like bookends on the century."

"Life is a mystery. Maybe Ragtime is our defining moment."