When stage and screen star Brian Stokes Mitchell shares the Hancher spotlight with the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night, he’s going to “give these students the experiences of a lifetime,” Hancher CEO Chuck Swanson said. “Those students will leave here remembering that.
“That’s a lot of what Hancher and the university are about — student success, creating opportunities for students to have experiences that change our lives.”
Likewise, Mitchell is hoping to count Hancher among his favorite places.
“Auditoriums have their own personality,” he said by phone from a soundstage in Queens, where he was filming an episode of the Showtime cable drama “Billions.”
In each space, “everything feels a little different,” he said. “Whether it’s live, bright, boomy, dark or muffled affects a lot of the audience experience. It’s such a joy to play in an auditorium or hall with great acoustics. I can feel it, and the orchestra feels it, as well. It’s just magical.
“I’ve played in a few that are wonderful, and hopefully, Hancher will be added to that list.”
Not surprisingly, his favorite is New York’s venerable Carnegie Hall, where he’s performed at least dozen times.
“It has such history. It’s said, ‘When you play an instrument or sing a note on the Carnegie Hall stage, it feels like the hall takes that note out of that instrument or voice and puts an extra little spin on it.’ A few others I’ve been in have done that. They add their own personality to the music,” Mitchell said.
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And while he enjoys singing solo with a piano, like he did for a 2012 Hancher concert at the Riverside Casino, he’s looking forward to singing with a symphony again.
“Performing with just a piano is like being on a tightrope without a net — there’s nothing there to cover you or save you,” said the man whose talents include riding a bicycle on a high wire. “With an orchestra, the cymbals crash, the horns are blaring. I can relax a little more and not work so hard — I work hard in a different way,” he quickly countered.
“When I’m performing, I’m not thinking about the instrumentation. It’s more about an energy I’m trying to put out to the audience, or create or play off of. An audience comes in with its own energy, and I connect with them and keep that energy loop going.”
Mitchell, 60, has been keeping that energy loop on high since hitting Broadway in 1988 in the musical “Mail,” winning the Theatre World Award for his role. More musicals followed, including “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” his Tony-nominated performance of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in “Ragtime,” his Tony-winning turn in the 1999 revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” and more Tony nominations for “King Hedley II” in 2001 and “Man of La Mancha” in 2002. The list goes on and on, including the title role of “Sweeney Todd” at the Kennedy Center and the leading romantic role in a Carnegie Hall concert version of “South Pacific,” co-starring Reba McEntire and Alec Baldwin.
Before Broadway beckoned, television audiences tuned into him in “Roots: The Next Generation” in 1979, and fell in love with him as Dr. Jackpot Jackson on “Trapper John, M.D.” from 1979 to 1986. Other recurring roles followed on “Frasier,” “Ugly Betty,” “Glee,” “Mr. Robot” and “The Blacklist,” among others. He’s loaned his rich baritone speaking and singing voices to a long line of animated features, and starred as the father of the bride, with Angela Bassett as his wife, in the big-screen film, “Jumping the Broom.”
He’s a storyteller, and like he did in the intimate Riverside setting, he plans to talk to his audience in the expansive Hancher hall.
“I still like to talk,” he said. “When I do concerts, I want people to feel like they’re sitting in their living room. I don’t prefer formality in my concerts or what I see. I’m kind of a laid-back guy — I like sitting around talking. You never know what’s going to come out of my mouth.
“I love live performing,” he said. “What’s hard about Broadway is that you do eight shows a week, and it’s always the same show, but when I’m doing my own show, I can put together whatever songs I want to do. I can riff off the audience, like if somebody has a funny expression.
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“That’s what I love about live performing. You can’t get that anywhere else. That’s why arts are so important to support. It’s great to have Hancher in your town,” he said.
“With a movie, it’s the same no matter what seat you sit in, no matter when you see it, but with a live performance like Broadway or a concert, it’s different for everybody sitting in the audience. They’re seeing a different show every day.
“Depending on where they’re sitting in the audience, it’s a different experience — it sounds a little bit different, it looks a little different. It’s in three dimensions, not two. It only exists in the moment they’re seeing the show being done. This is never going to happen again in time or space. I like to have fun with that, too.
“I like to make every show special. Fun is the important word,” he said, especially when the unexpected happens in a live performance. “Instead of getting upset about it, you have to make it part of the experience, and then the audience feels like they’re in on something special and unusual.”
The UI Symphony will perform works by Mozart and Marquez in the first half of the concert, then Mitchell and his trio will join the student musicians, under the baton of William LaRue Jones, for a selection of songs to be announced from the stage.
Mitchell tends to draw from his vast Broadway repertoire, embodying each character fully, if only for the length of the song.
“People tell me they feel like they’re watching me play all these different characters in a concert,” he said. “I like to treat each song as a mini musical. That’s why I love being a performer so much, because you get to become different people, and sometimes people you would never have the opportunity to become — sometimes very nasty people doing terrible things, like playing Sweeny Todd or Coalhouse Walker, who starts in this very great place and goes to a very dark place. I’ve played a lot of roles like that.
“You get to explore all parts of humanity when you do that, and it makes you open your eyes and makes you realize, ‘I have it really good here in this country,’ particularly when we take things for granted. Or ‘I have it so good in my life here, or not so good, and here’s how it could be better.’ It allows you to live in different people in a way, and experience different people.
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“When I was a kid — and I didn’t think about this until my adult years — from the time I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, I remember looking at other people walking by and wishing I could blow myself into them, because I wanted to know, what does it feel like? When they walk, does it feel like the same way when I walk? Do they see colors the same way I see colors? Are they hearing sounds the same way I’m hearing sounds?
“I always had this fantasy of doing that as a kid, and I realized when I grew up, that’s exactly what I’m doing for a living,” he said. “I get to blow myself into these different characters and experience these different points of view about life, and I try to extend that when I perform a song or perform a character in a song; then I get to do a whole bunch of characters in my show.”
If you go
• What: Brian Stokes Mitchell with the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra
• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
• When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (3/28)
• Tickets: $10 to $45, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/BStokesMitchell
• Program: Mozart, Concerto for Two Pianos, K365; Arturo Marquez, Danzon No. 2; after intermission, Mitchell and his trio will join the orchestra for songs announced from the stage
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