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Concert review: Paired with Utah Symphony, Brian Stokes Mitchell concert is exhilarating

Published: Monday, Nov. 4 2013 10:30 a.m. MST

Recognizing his previous concerts in Utah, Brian Stokes Mitchell comically took on a hayseed accent to say, “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”

With a thunderously beautiful baritone and his trademark ebullient demeanor, Mitchell offered a truly spectacular performance — and the audience roared back with enthusiastic appreciation, declaring he’d be welcomed back with the same gratitude.

A renowned vocalist, Mitchell performed with the Utah Symphony, under the baton of the versatile Jerry Steichen, to open the symphony’s Pop Concert series at Abravanel Hall Nov. 1-2.

The Tony Award winner could arguably be the state’s favorite’s male concert soloist. He previously appeared with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — first at the O.C. Tanner Gift of Music concert and then the PBS-broadcast “Ring Christmas Bells” Christmas Concert — and at a BYU Homecoming Spectacular.

Broadway showstoppers were the primary focus of the evenings' repertoire. And Mitchell had lead roles in several prestigious stagings of the musicals where the songs originated. They included “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific,” “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” from “Man of La Mancha” and “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime,” which was introduced with an a capella rendition of “America” to convey the Broadway song’s can-do, patriotic spirit.

The warmest reception came after “Stars,” Javert’s big solo from “Les Misérables,” which displayed his strong and powerful vocals. Mitchell performed the role at a Hollywood Bowl staged concert opposite Lea Michele as Cosette.

“How to Handle a Woman” from “Camelot” — with the gentle crooning of the words, “love her, love her, love her” — also deeply impressed.

There is a tangible joy in Mitchell’s personality that bursts forth on stage. He radiates genuine happiness and unabashed glee. This joie de vivre was evident in his improvised dance steps as he flitted across the stage, notably in the medley of Gershwin tunes and inviting the audience to sing the refrains in "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess."

While playing his melodica, an organ-keyed instrument related to the harmonica, Mitchell displayed his cheery spirit and unyielding optimism with Louis Armstrong’s millions-selling “What a Wonderful World” as the encore. The audience was assured there will always be “skies of blue, clouds of white … bright blessed days, dark sacred nights.”

Mitchell shared the stage with his frequent partner, pianist Tedd Firth, and a concert by the two is a rare treat. But when they are joined by the Utah Symphony, the performance becomes exhilarating.

The orchestra opened each of the two acts with tributes to the soloist: sprightly medleys of songs from Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens’ “Ragtime” and “Kiss Me, Kate.” For his performances in these two shows, Mitchell was Tony-nominated, winning the award for his Fred Graham/Petruchio role in the Cole Porter musical.

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