USO show is a homecoming for ‘Stokes,’ San Diego-bred Broadway veteran
It takes sacrifice, ambition, a little luck and a ton of raw talent to scale the heights of Broadway.
It does not necessarily take a motto. But Brian Stokes Mitchell has one of those, too — and it’s a particularly fitting one for a guy who came of age on the beaches of San Diego: “Ride the wave.”
“You know, just see where the wave takes you,” the Tony Award-winning stage and screen actor is saying over the phone from his New York home, speaking of both performing live — which he’ll do here Saturday as a benefit for the United Services Organization — and the broader task of carving out a career in the arts.
“Sometimes it’s big and scary, and sometimes it’s small and not so exciting, and you kind of have to pump it and make it go. But the thing is to stay on the wave.”
That wave has taken Mitchell — known universally in the business as “Stokes” — through roles in 11 Broadway productions, from the short-lived musical “Mail” in 1988 to his 2000 Tony Award-winning turn in “Kiss Me, Kate” (one of four performances for which he earned Tony nominations) and beyond.
For his service to the theater community as longtime board chairman of The Actors Fund, the Patrick Henry High School grad and San Diego Junior Theatre alumnus earned the Tony organization’s honorary Isabelle Stevenson Award in 2016. That same year, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.
While Mitchell’s last Broadway show, “Shuffle Along,” also came in 2016, he’s been on the road regularly since then, performing concerts around the country and world.
And this latest live appearance — which supports the USO’s outreach mission to members of the military and their families — turns out to be a perfectly fitting return to what got Mitchell into theater in the first place.
“The first time I saw a full musical was ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ which was a college production that came to town,” Mitchell recalls of a show that was staged in the theater at Naval Base Subic Bay when his dad was working for the U.S. Navy in the Philippines.
“That was sponsored by the USO.”
Some two decades later, when Mitchell was starring as Dr. Justin “Jackpot” Jackson on the hit television series “Trapper John, M.D.,” he was asked to tour with the USO and entertain service members in India, Oman and other far-flung places.
“And I did a second tour that ended up taking me back to the Philippines — to Subic Bay, to the station theater, where I had seen a million USO shows,” he recalls. “So it was a nice completion of a circle for me.”
The military figures deeply in Mitchell’s family and upbringing: His father, George Mitchell, who died in 2014, taught radio code to the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American aviators who became much-decorated during World War II and helped integrate the armed services.
Around that time, the USO actually played a role in how “Stokes” came into being: George Mitchell met Lillian Stokes, the woman who would become his wife (and Brian’s mother), at a USO dance at Spelman College in Atlanta.
After the war, the elder Mitchell signed on as a civilian employee for the Navy, and the family lived in Guam and the Philippines before moving to San Diego in the early 1970s, when Brian was 14.
Already a pianist and budding composer, Mitchell made a splash on the youth-theater scene here right away, starring in “Bye Bye Birdie” at San Diego Junior Theatre.
He was part of a cadre of young artists destined to make a major impact on theater nationally, including Casey Nicholaw, now one of Broadway’s busiest directors and a Tony-winner for “The Book of Mormon”; and Christian Hoff, likewise a Broadway veteran and a Tony-winner for the La Jolla Playhouse-launched “Jersey Boys.”
Mitchell found key mentors here in the late Don Ward and his wife, Bonnie, longtime fixtures at Junior Theatre, Starlight Musical Theatre, and Moonlight Stage Productions: “For years, I’ve called the Wards my theatrical parents,” he says.
“And then I was in high school with (the Oscar and Tony nominee-to-be) Annette Bening— she was a grade below me,” Mitchell says. (They stay in touch, and Bening is now likewise involved with The Actors Fund.)
“So it was kind of an auspicious time to be in San Diego, training and getting my foundation set.”
That signal moment in San Diego theater history might’ve found its apotheosis in the Old Globe’s 1978 production of “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Mitchell, already on the cusp of making his first TV appearances, led a cast that included Nicholaw; Gregg Barnes, another Junior Theatre alumnus and now a Tony-winning costume designer; the actress Kathy Najimy; and the San Diego-based writer-director-actress Melinda Gilb.
Mitchell’s subsequent TV appearances in the early to mid-1980s bridged the way to his ’88 Broadway debut, and to the many milestones that followed, including his Tony-nominated performances in “Ragtime,” “King Hedley II” and “Man of La Mancha.”
When Mitchell, now 60, takes the stage Saturday at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and Marina for the USO gala (which honors former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory), he’ll be bringing his rich, unmistakable baritone to material from many of those shows, as well as numbers tailored to the occasion.
“There are some songs I usually do when there are military people in the audience,” he says, noting that when his father was to be honored for his wartime service at a performance some years back, “I asked my dad, what were your favorite songs back then?’
“And one of them was ‘What a Wonderful World,’ which has become kind of a staple now that I do in my concerts regularly.
“Another one he talked about that the Tuskegee Airmen were really fond of was a song called ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right,’ which Nat King Cole originally made famous. I think the last time I was in San Diego doing (a performance) with the orchestra there, I sang an arrangement of that song in honor of my dad and all the people who were in the military or had family in the military.
“I have a lot of other songs I sing,” including “some patriotic songs that are thoughtful patriotic songs — I’m not so much about breast-beating patriotic songs.”
Among his favorites is “Flag Song,” which is “a wonderful song Stephen Sondheim wrote that’s kind of obscure.
“And then I’ll just be singing some of my songs. There are certain things that people like to hear all the time. Generally I’ll plan a show a week or two ahead, because another thing I like to do is (focus on), ‘What’s going on in the news? What’s going on in the world?’”
And “I do a section in my show about servicemen and servicewomen. One of the things I talk about is something my parents always did that I thought was just terrific: During the holidays they would find (service members) and we would have them over for Thanksgiving or for dinner. It gave them a little touch of home.
“They would sit around the table and listen to all the kids argue and scream and fight — and laugh! We had a great family. So it’s always been a great memory.”
There also may be material from “Plays With Music,” Mitchell’s latest album, which he’s still working to complete.
That project competes for his time these days with his devotion to The Actors Fund, “which is a charity that helps not just actors, but anybody who has made their living in theater, performing arts, television, film, dance, the circus — ticket-takers, agents, managers.
“It’s a human-services organization in times of need or transition or crisis.”
He also continues to do a lot of television, while trying to balance work with family time: Mitchell and his wife, Allyson Tucker, have a 14-year-old son, Ellington.
A self-described “ocean rat” who spent summer days bodysurfing on the beaches of Coronado as a teen, Mitchell says he’s still drawn to the sea and the crash of the waves: “That and my son’s laugh are my two favorite sounds in the world.”
And what’s been fun about turning his attentions to solo concerts is that “I kind of get to ride this wave of whatever the audience is throwing at me.
“If I have a thing that I would say I try to do in my show, (it’s that) I want to kind of reconnect people to joy and happiness, and just have a good time.
“But you do that through darkness as well. It’s not just a happy-happy show. It’s a show that’s about being a human being, and about the commonalities we have and the connections we have. I want people to feel joyful, really. That’s a better word than happy. Because joyful includes sadness and other things as well.
“I want them to feel kind of reconnected to that thing they felt as a kid that made them enthusiastic about the world. I think the world is a wondrous, incredible, amazing place. And frightening and terrifying and a lot of other things as well.
“As artists, really, we try to find those things people respond to. And to reconnect them to empathy and cooperation and kindness. Just being human.”
Brian Stokes Mitchell, at the USO San Diego’s 77th Annual Stars and Stripes Gala: For Love of Country
When: 5 p.m. May 5
Where: San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina, 333 W. Harbor Drive, downtown
Tickets: $150 for active duty; $500 individual; $1,000 VIP individual ticket. (Event is a benefit.)
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