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THEATER

From Coalhouse to Hot Stuff

Brian Stokes Mitchell just can't stop smiling since 'Ragtime' transformed him from an actor into a star.

June 29, 1997|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

He's in dressing room No. 1 backstage at the Shubert Theatre, as befits the star of a $10-million musical, but if you hadn't seen the show, you might wonder what he was doing there. In a city of stars, Brian Stokes Mitchell is as yet a new kid in town. His operatic performance as the tragic hero Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the recently opened, Broadway-bound "Ragtime" has theatergoers wondering at intermission, "Who is that guy?"

On closer inspection, it turns out he is neither a kid nor new to town, but the public has never had a chance to see or hear him in a role like this--the sort of role in the sort of show that changes everything for an actor.

"It feels like the Eagle has landed, and I'm about to step off onto the surface of the moon," Mitchell says one evening, two hours before the curtain is about to go up again on his new life. He is in an expansive mood, unembarrassed to share this heady moment with a visitor. "It's blowing my mind," he says of all the attention.

Recalling the emotional blast that hit him when he returned to the stage for the curtain call on opening night just two weeks ago, he says, trying "not to sound too New Agey," that "I could literally feel this tremendous amount of energy pass right through my body. To have 2,000 people put their energy into you, I still can't process it."

He was up there onstage hugging E.L. Doctorow, the author of the novel on which the turn-of-the-century musical is based; Terrence McNally, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who adapted the book; Frank Galati, the Tony Award-winner who directed it; Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer and lyricist who wrote the songs for him to sing; and producer Garth Drabinsky, the man who made it all possible by offering him the prize role of Coalhouse in the first place. The gasps and hugs and tears continued while the celebrity-studded crowd stood and applauded, whistled and roared. It was quite a scene, even by opening-night standards.

"On a scale of 10, that was a 10," Mitchell says, "but every night it's usually 8 1/2. The show seems to be touching a chord with people."

It started in Toronto last fall and will continue in Los Angeles as long as the box office warrants. But Mitchell will be at the Shubert only until November, when he leaves to prepare for the Broadway opening of "Ragtime" in January with the Toronto company.

He's been to Broadway before, replacing Gregory Hines in "Jelly's Last Jam" and Anthony Crivello in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." This time someone will be waiting to replace him.

The prospect of it looming ahead as he sits here in this dressing room surrounded by congratulatory bouquets of flowers, his back to a mirror papered over with telegrams and cards, must seem several galaxies removed from "Trapper John, M.D." He spent seven years in L.A. on the CBS drama, playing a doctor named Jackpot Jackson from 1979-1986. "I bought a house with 'Trapper John,' " he says, as if summing up the full meaning of episodic television.

But getting the part of Doctorow's proud and indignant piano player--now elevated to a lyric baritone onstage--might not be viewed as Mitchell's big break so much as getting cast in that other Drabinsky show, "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Playing the imprisoned revolutionary Valentin (with Chita Rivera and then Vanessa Williams) was the job that positioned him to get this one.

"When I had been doing 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' for about a month or so, Garth came up to me and said, 'Got a show, want you to do a role in it, can't tell you what it is.' He did that a couple more times and finally said, "It's 'Ragtime,' Coalhouse Walker Jr. It's yours if you want it."

Still, the way Mitchell sees it, "There really hasn't been a big break. There's been a lot of little breaks. But I could trace this show back to the very first thing I did at San Diego Junior Theater when I was 14 years old. I could trace the lineage of how one role leads to another and because somebody saw you doing this thing they hired you for this thing. It's been my path. This is another stopover on the path, and a wonderful one."

He changed his name for it. Before Toronto, he had always gone by the name Brian Mitchell, which he had finally decided he didn't like as a stage name and was going to discard altogether. Instead, he simply resurrected his middle name, Stokes, his late mother's maiden name. Now he prefers people call him Stokes.

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