Broadway star Mitchell tosses musical curveballs


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Just in time for the World Series, Brian Stokes Mitchell is readying another kind of October classic.

Mr. Mitchell, an all-star in any musical league, has the voice and the repertoire to headline concerts across the globe. Serving up a bit of Broadway, some jazz, some standards -- those are the fastballs, the change-ups.

But he's particularly fond of what he calls the "curveballs."

Curveballs are "songs I love to sing that go over hugely with audiences," Mr. Mitchell said.

Pittsburgh Symphony PNC Pops Series

With: Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $25.75-$119.75; 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.com.

He will kick off the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops season with four Heinz Hall concerts, beginning Thursday. Audiences might well hear "Waters of March," by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, a catchy tune without a clear narrative that instead builds upon lists of items. It's one of Mr. Mitchell's favorites.

There also are promised selections from "Carousel" and "Porgy and Bess," and, of course, "Some Enchanted Evening," both in song and mood.

Mr. Mitchell's versatile baritone served him well in runs of Broadway classics such as "Man of La Mancha," "South Pacific" and "Sweeney Todd." He also originated the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in composer and Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty's "Ragtime," which earned him one of his four Tony Award nominations. He won for best actor in a musical in 2000's "Kiss Me Kate." Yet the man says he cannot stand the sound of his own voice.

"I think most artists are the same way. ... Most of the things I have recorded I don't listen to, or I listen just once to kind of check it and then never again," he said, laughing. "I can only hear the mistakes. ... It makes me crazy."

Happily, the man his friends call "Stokes" comprises his own tiny minority.

"I'm going to mix it up a little bit, more Broadway than not," said Mr. Mitchell, who grew up on jazz. His first, eponymous album was a softer take on the classics, and his 2012 follow-up, "Simply Broadway," was just that.

"I'm a big proponent of giving the audience what they want," he said.

Ted Sperling will conduct the concerts, and it's a good thing he and Mr. Mitchell are old friends. Once the singer arrives in Pittsburgh, he'll have time for just one sit-down with the conductor and pianist Tedd Firth. Right after that, there's a rehearsal with the orchestra.

"Members of symphony orchestras of course are of such high caliber, you don't really need more than that.

"Usually, it sounds -- and should sound -- polished."

Subsequent performances give him a chance to interact more with the musicians, and the patter will change from concert to concert -- "depending on the town, and what's going on in the world, and how I'm feeling, and how much time we have ... ."

The truly hard part is choosing the material. At 70 minutes, this is not a Bruce Springsteen concert: "I could do a five-hour show with all the songs I have."

An all-star college chorus co-conducted by Robert Page and Christine Hestwood is also on the bill this week.

Mr. Mitchell said he's been enjoying a busy schedule of concerts and will join fellow Broadway standouts Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and Lea Salonga on the fourth Playbill cruise next March, sailing, appropriately, in the South Pacific.

He and Jeff Goldblum also did two episodes last year on the Fox hit "Glee," playing the fathers of Lea Michele's Rachel Berry. Reprising that role, he said, "is out of my control. They just call people when they've written the characters in. If they need me, I'd love to be there."

A bigger career choice would be a return to Broadway. Although he had a featured role in 2011's "Women on the Verge" and is the chair of the Actors Fund, he hasn't jumped in feet first to star since 2003's "Man of La Mancha."

"I've been itching to do a show right now. I want it to be the right show. What I'm not looking forward to, honestly, is eight shows a week, because I'm spoiled.

"I might do 50 concerts or 40 concerts a year, which makes it a lot easier on my family life. It would be rare to see my son. He's on this early morning school schedule, and once you're on a show, you're on a late-night schedule."

Mr. Mitchell said he knows he's fortunate to have such options, but taking on eight performances a week isn't a challenge to be taken lightly. "It has its own fun, but this [singing with the PSO Pops] is fun as well. This is more like a smorgasbord."

music

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM


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