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Did Someone Say an Impossible Dream? Not Anymore

Date: 2008-11-12
source: NY Times
author: Stephen Holden

By STEPHEN HOLDEN Published: November 12, 2008

Brian Stokes Mitchell seized the moment on Tuesday evening. That moment, still fresh in the hearts and minds of the packed crowd at Feinstein?s at Loews Regency, where he opened a too-short five-night engagement, was the election to the presidency a week earlier of Barack Obama, a politician to whom he bears striking resemblances.

Brian Stokes Mitchell: sings, and dares you to be happy, in his latest cabaret show. Both are tall, lean, handsome African-Americans with a naturally heroic bearing. (Mr. Mitchell, at 51, is four years older than the president-elect.) Both are gifted at oratory: Mr. Obama when he speaks, and Mr. Mitchell when he wraps his deep commanding baritone around a song like ?The Impossible Dream.? In Mr. Mitchell?s hands on Tuesday the vow of perseverance against all odds from ?Man of La Mancha? was reinvigorated with a startling conviction. It inevitably echoed the themes of Mr. Obama?s books, ?Dreams From My Father? and ?The Audacity of Hope.?

Mr. Mitchell hadn?t been planning to sing it, he said, until Mr. Obama?s victory. Suddenly a song you may never have wanted to hear again seemed a vital, even necessary acknowledgment of the historic moment when one man?s dreams came true.

A little earlier in the show he delivered a stirring a cappella ?America the Beautiful? joined to ?Wheels of a Dream,? the Flaherty-Ahrens anthem from ?Ragtime,? sung by Coalhouse Walker Jr., the African-American father-to-be Mr. Mitchell portrayed on Broadway, who anticipates a brighter American future. As for Mr. Mitchell?s personal beliefs, you might describe them, with all due respect to Hubert H. Humphrey who exploited the slogan to little effect, as ?the politics of joy.? Mr. Mitchell?s singing is infused with an innately childlike enthusiasm. Singing Ella Fitzgerald?s ?A-Tisket, A-Tasket,? he became an excitable little boy exclaiming over the imaginary green-and-yellow basket in his hands. Its tune, he pointed out, is a really the primal children?s cry of ?nyah-nyah-nyah? and also of ?Ring Around the Rosie.? ?A-Tisket, A-Tasket? shared a similar childlike playfulness with two Antonio Carlos Jobim classics, ?One Note Samba? and ?Waters of March,? performed early in the set. Along with the spirit of saudade, the Brazilian-Portuguese term for an indefinable nostalgia-tinged longing that is an essential ingredient of Jobim?s music, goes the pantheistic exuberance of a kid playing in a brook on a spring morning. ?Waters of March,? Mr. Mitchell observed, is a celebration of the arrival of the Brazilian rainy season.

Jeff Peterson, a leading Hawaiian slack-key guitarist, the percussionist Bashiri Johnson and the bassist Gary Haase accompanied Mr. Mitchell. As unfussy as they were stylistically flexible, they gave him ample room to frolic unfettered on the playground of his musical imagination. The opening number, ?I?ve Got You Under My Skin,? assumed South African rhythms and textures. A gregarious ?Nearness of You,? directed as much to the humanity in general as to a lover, became a spare acoustic ballad. A similarly uncluttered ?What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?? conjured a carefree romantic fantasy of blue skies and happily-ever-after. ?Jesu, Joy of Man?s Desiring? soared heavenward.

And there you have Mr. Mitchell, a singer who dares you to be happier than you ever dreamed. Because he seems a living, breathing example of a man living comfortably in that exalted state, that dare has the weight of a serious challenge. I hope he sings at the inauguration. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays through Saturday at Feinstein?s at ,