THE LEADING MEN: Brianís Song

By Wayman Wong
01 Feb 2005

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Valentineís Day is on the way, so here are three "Leading Men" whose hearts are always in the right place: Brian Stokes Mitchell (Feinsteinís at the Regency), Stephen Oremus (All Shook Up) and Eric Millegan (Harold & Maude).

HEíS STOKED TO SING JAZZ
Brian Stokes Mitchell won raves for singing Ragtime, but heíll be jazzing up the joint in his nightclub debut, Feb. 1-19 at Feinsteinís at the Regency. With his breathtaking baritone, the 47-year-old Tony winner promises "a feel-good night where you can take your honey to celebrate love and life." Just donít expect him to belt "Make Them Hear You" because "Feinsteinís is so intimate, itís like singing in your living room. I canít blow out the place like I would in the theatre."

Besides Ragtime, this 6-foot-1 matinee idol from Seattle has let his virile voice "echo far and wide," making audiences hear him ó and cheer him ó in Kiss Me, Kate and Man of La Mancha. Chita Rivera, his co star from Kiss of the Spider Woman, who opens Feb. 22 at Feinsteinís, says: "Bri has sex appeal. He has the love for the theatre, the love for the woman and the love for the audience. Heíll be phenomenal at Feinsteinís. And heís not bad to look at!"

Mitchell, whoís a mix of African-American, German, Scots and American Indian, first won fame as Jackpot Jackson on the TV series "Trapper John, M.D." (1979-86). He and his actress-wife, Allyson Tucker, are proud parents of a one-year-old boy. Rivera adds, "Theyíre a beautiful couple and that baby is to die for."

Question: Congrats on your cabaret debut! What are you singing?
Brian Stokes Mitchell: A lot of jazz. Itís my favorite style of singing. Iíll be crooning standards like "How Long Has This Been Goiní On?," "The Very Thought of You," "Embraceable You" and "Itís All Right With Me." And because Valentineís Day is coming up, Iím concentrating on love songs.



Q: Thatís great because there arenít too many hate songs.
Mitchell: Thereís "I Hate Men." [Laughs.]

Q: Who are some of your favorite jazz artists?
Mitchell: My father was a huge jazz fan, so I remember him playing Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie. And now I love Bobby McFerrin and Kurt Elling. I gravitate to rhythmic music, so I listen to jazz, world music, Indian music, Hawaiian music, all kinds. Oddly enough, I almost never listen to show tunes. But there are some shows I love like Adam Guettelís Floyd Collins.

Q: Have you gotten any tips on making your cabaret debut?
Mitchell: Iíve been talking to everyone: Cheets [Chita], Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Feinstein, Liz Callaway. I havenít seen much cabaret lately, but I love the intimacy. People will get to see me for the first time being myself, singing songs Iíve chosen. I hope theyíll like it more or as much as my theatre singing.

Q: Will you be doing any of your original songs?
Mitchell: Not this time. But Iíve written everything: jazz, country, pop. Iíve done a symphonic suite and scored episodes of "Trapper John, M.D." Iíve always wanted to write a musical, too, but I havenít found the right subject.

Q: Whatís your favorite musical?
Mitchell: It might be Sweeney Todd. I did it at the Kennedy Center, and it was a dream come true. That score is Sondheim at his best. Itís dark, and itís also a love story. And the show is horrific but funny. I had a blast working with Christine Baranski [as Mrs. Lovett]. Iíd love to do that show in New York.

Q: And you did a reading of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in 2003.
Mitchell: I loved doing that. Iíve always wanted to work with Jack OíBrien and David Yazbek. Norbert [Leo Butz] and the whole cast were great. The only down side was: I just had a son and wanted to take a year off to raise him. So I couldnít do the show. But itís gonna be a big fat hit with John Lithgow. I love him!

Q: When you were doing Ragtime, you got letters from teens about dealing with prejudice. Have you ever been called the N-word?
Mitchell: Not to my face. But Iíve run into prejudice, but itís been subtle. Years ago, I couldnít get arrested in commercials because of my look. "Is he Jewish, Hispanic or African-American?" I ended up doing voiceover work, which has been great. Honestly, I canít complain. Iíve played all kinds of roles in theatre, especially on Broadway: Jelly Roll, Fred Graham, Coalhouse, Don Quixote.

Q: Sidney Poitier once saw you in Ragtime. What did he say?
Mitchell: He came backstage, and itís not what he said, but how he said it. He had tears in his eyes and said, "You transported this entire audience." And I said, "Thank you. Youíre on that stage with me. Youíre part of the reason Iím there. Youíre holding my hand every night." He took this sobbing gasp. And we hugged in silence. It may be the most incredible moment Iíve ever had. He was so gracious.

Q: Why didnít Ragtime run longer than it did?
Mitchell: Livent was a mess. They overspent. It was a victim of unfortunate producing. Itís a show that should still be running.

Q: Valentineís Day is coming, so tell us: Howíd you meet your wife?
Mitchell: We met during Oh, Kay! and we were friends for years. Then we went on a trip to the Bahamas and fell in love. We walked around this coral reef, and we saw octopuses that changed color and fish and living sand dollars. We had the best time and a mutual love of life. I thought: "Oh, man. Sheís incredible!"

Q: Congratulations on your baby! Whatís his name?
Mitchell: Ellington. We named him that in honor of our fathers, who both loved jazz. Heís a great kid, and he already loves to sing.

And with Stokes as his dad, Ellington is destined to love all that jazz.

For more information, visit www.brianstokes.com.

SINGING THE PRAISES OF A ĎLEADINGí ARRANGER
When it comes to knowing the score on the Great White Way, Stephen Oremus is a musical genius whoíll soon have three Broadway musicals under his belt. Besides conducting and arranging Wicked and orchestrating and arranging Avenue Q, he is music-directing and arranging All Shook Up, the Elvis Presley show that begins previews Feb. 20 and opens March 24 at the Palace.

Written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Christopher Ashley, "itís the Elvis myth funneled through Shakespearean comedies," Oremus says. "Itís about a roustabout who comes to town, and suddenly everyone falls in love with the wrong people. Itís been a love fest working with Joe, Chris and this fantastic cast of singers."

Whatís astonishing is how this 5-foot-11 arranger reinvents the Presley songs so they serve DiPietroís delightful plot of mismatched lovers. He pairs "Teddy Bear" with "Hound Dog" and turns them into a fun and funky contrapuntal quartet. And "Canít Help Falliní in Love" is no longer a Presley solo; the whole cast sings it, and it swells into a powerhouse pop-gospel number. Itís also the musicalís message: Love is simply love, and your heart just responds to whomever it has to, white or black, straight or gay. Oremus says, "It gives me goosebumps every night."

Cheyenne Jackson, who gives a star-making tour de force as Chad, the sexy roustabout, says: "Everyone marvels at Stephenís arrangements. Heís an amazing musician, and heís also charismatic. When I first met Stephen a couple years ago at auditions, I thought he was an actor. I wondered: ĎWhoís that cute guy?í This is the first time Iíve worked with him, and heís tremendous. Itís so fun to see him rocking out in the pit."

Oremus, 33, who grew up loving "Viva Las Vegas" and even has a velvet Elvis painting, first got involved with All Shook Up a few years ago when DiPietro got the okay from the Presley estate to write a new Elvis musical. "I jumped at the chance to do this. It was so cool." As for those who call it a "jukebox musical," Oremus says, "Itís silly. Ever see ĎSinginí in the Rainí? It uses songs that pre-existed. I donít think thereís anything less creative about what weíre doing than any Broadway musical."

Born in Livingston, NJ, he started playing the piano at four, and was a punk rock kid who played in local bands and loved Alice Donut, the Lunachicks and Mudhoney. Who couldíve guessed that years later he would make his Broadway debut by conducting Wicked? "That was the greatest thrill of my life. Stephen [Schwartz] has been an incredible mentor; Iíve learned so much from him." Oremus is now in such demand that sometimes he works on all three of his shows in the same week.

What was the turning point? "Andrew Lippaís The Wild Party. It changed my life. I was quitting the business. I was done. I wasnít getting any work in New York. Then, Andrew asked me to music-direct his show, and his music is so extraordinary. He rekindled my faith in musicals. I have such a profound admiration and love for this man. And thatís also where Stephen first saw me." Any plans to write his own musicals? "Thatíll happen someday. Iíve written some pop songs with Marcy Heisler. But right now, I want to make other peopleís music sound as fabulous as I can."

For more information, visit www.allshookup.com. Continued...