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01 Feb 2005

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Photo by Ben Strothmann
Valentine’s Day is on the way, so here are three "Leading Men" whose hearts are always in the right place: Brian Stokes Mitchell (Feinstein’s at the Regency), Stephen Oremus (All Shook Up) and Eric Millegan (Harold & Maude).

Brian Stokes Mitchell won raves for singing Ragtime, but he’ll be jazzing up the joint in his nightclub debut, Feb. 1-19 at Feinstein’s 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 don’t expect him to belt "Make Them Hear You" because "Feinstein’s is so intimate, it’s like singing in your living room. I can’t 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 — and cheer him — 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 Feinstein’s, says: "Bri has sex appeal. He has the love for the theatre, the love for the woman and the love for the audience. He’ll be phenomenal at Feinstein’s. And he’s not bad to look at!"

Mitchell, who’s 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, "They’re 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. It’s my favorite style of singing. I’ll be crooning standards like "How Long Has This Been Goin’ On?," "The Very Thought of You," "Embraceable You" and "It’s All Right With Me." And because Valentine’s Day is coming up, I’m concentrating on love songs.

Q: That’s great because there aren’t too many hate songs.
Mitchell: There’s "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 Guettel’s Floyd Collins.

Q: Have you gotten any tips on making your cabaret debut?
Mitchell: I’ve been talking to everyone: Cheets [Chita], Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Feinstein, Liz Callaway. I haven’t seen much cabaret lately, but I love the intimacy. People will get to see me for the first time being myself, singing songs I’ve chosen. I hope they’ll 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 I’ve written everything: jazz, country, pop. I’ve done a symphonic suite and scored episodes of "Trapper John, M.D." I’ve always wanted to write a musical, too, but I haven’t found the right subject.

Q: What’s 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. It’s dark, and it’s also a love story. And the show is horrific but funny. I had a blast working with Christine Baranski [as Mrs. Lovett]. I’d 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. I’ve always wanted to work with Jack O’Brien 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 couldn’t do the show. But it’s 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 I’ve run into prejudice, but it’s been subtle. Years ago, I couldn’t 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 can’t complain. I’ve 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 it’s 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. You’re on that stage with me. You’re part of the reason I’m there. You’re holding my hand every night." He took this sobbing gasp. And we hugged in silence. It may be the most incredible moment I’ve ever had. He was so gracious.

Q: Why didn’t Ragtime run longer than it did?
Mitchell: Livent was a mess. They overspent. It was a victim of unfortunate producing. It’s a show that should still be running.

Q: Valentine’s Day is coming, so tell us: How’d 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. She’s incredible!"

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

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

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When it comes to knowing the score on the Great White Way, Stephen Oremus is a musical genius who’ll 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, "it’s the Elvis myth funneled through Shakespearean comedies," Oremus says. "It’s about a roustabout who comes to town, and suddenly everyone falls in love with the wrong people. It’s been a love fest working with Joe, Chris and this fantastic cast of singers."

What’s astonishing is how this 5-foot-11 arranger reinvents the Presley songs so they serve DiPietro’s delightful plot of mismatched lovers. He pairs "Teddy Bear" with "Hound Dog" and turns them into a fun and funky contrapuntal quartet. And "Can’t Help Fallin’ in Love" is no longer a Presley solo; the whole cast sings it, and it swells into a powerhouse pop-gospel number. It’s also the musical’s 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 Stephen’s arrangements. He’s an amazing musician, and he’s also charismatic. When I first met Stephen a couple years ago at auditions, I thought he was an actor. I wondered: ‘Who’s that cute guy?’ This is the first time I’ve worked with him, and he’s tremendous. It’s 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, "It’s silly. Ever see ‘Singin’ in the Rain’? It uses songs that pre-existed. I don’t think there’s anything less creative about what we’re 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 could’ve 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; I’ve 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 Lippa’s The Wild Party. It changed my life. I was quitting the business. I was done. I wasn’t 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 that’s also where Stephen first saw me." Any plans to write his own musicals? "That’ll happen someday. I’ve written some pop songs with Marcy Heisler. But right now, I want to make other people’s music sound as fabulous as I can."

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