Brian Stokes Mitchell: Lovely

I was fortunate to catch Brian Stokes Mitchell at the Cafe Carlyle; his engagement, called “Plays with Music,” ends on Saturday. Here’s what I thought: Only a few yards from the clangor of Manhattan streets lies the Café Carlyle, whose noise tends to be laden more with sweet sounds than with sirens. There, the other night, a very winning and full-voiced Brian Stokes Mitchell assumed the stage for an engagement called “Plays with Music.” Backed by piano, bass, and drums, he was celebrating his return to a cabaret setting as well as the Café Carlyle’s 60th anniversary.

The cafe’s first tenant, in 1955, was composer Richard Rodgers, to whom Mitchell paid tribute by singing ‘Hello, Young Lovers,’ from “The King and I.” Avoiding the creamy-voiced rendition familiar from female interpreters, Mitchell chose a lilting arrangement. In fact, his show went out of its way to set standards to jaunty rhythms, often Brazilian, a tendency that crested with Mitchell’s haunting singing, in Portuguese, of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins’s “Comecar de Novo.”

Mitchell, whose musicianship extends to the playing of the piano and the mouth organ, made his reputation in such Broadway revivals as “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Man of La Mancha.” He possesses a heroic baritone for which Broadway these days has too little use. That thundering instrument achieved impressive effect when Mitchell sang, with lyrical beauty, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from “Camelot.”

Mitchell’s taste for anthems reappeared in his version of “I Was Here,” an underappreciated gem from Ahrens and Flaherty’s 2007 musical, “The Glorious Ones.” Mitchell’s talent for the outsized vocal gesture, honed on Broadway stages and in concert halls, was not always ideally matched to the tight confines of the Carlyle. I sometimes longed for more intimacy in his presentation.

More often, however, I found myself caught up in the plushness of Mitchell’s tone and the charm of his between-songs patter. Combining these qualities was his singing of Dietz and Schwartz’s “By Myself.” Mitchell brought almost unbearable intimacy to the rendition, and managed to make seamless an unusual segue from “By Myself” to Jerry Herman’s “I Won’t Send Roses.” This mini-medley expressed the show’s cumulative qualities: unexpected juxtapositions and effortless beauty.

The Cafe Carlyle is at 212-744-1600,

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