“American Songbook means I can sing anything I want,” quipped Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, launching the eighth season for the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center. What he offered was essentially a career retro-spective, beginning with a high school lead in “Oklahoma” and testing the terrain with “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning.” His singing can be creamy and subtle one moment, and bold and lustrous the next; program benefited from a focus that wasn’t present in his club debut at Feinstein’s at the Regency last winter.
Mitchell seldom strayed from the Broadway canon. To illustrate what a suave Sportin’ Life he might have been, Mitchell offered a rousing take on “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” that, against Lincoln Center’s glittering landscape of Columbus Circle and Central Park South, was a testament to Gotham’s high life.
While Cole Porter’s “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate” was fused with the proper mixture of ardency and desire, the singer appeared less comfortable in a pseudo jazz trip with the Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh “Witch-craft.” Much better was a rangy “Lazy Afternoon,” the summery landscape of “beetle bugs and tulip trees” from the cult musical “The Golden Apple.”
Since Scott Seigel’s acclaimed “Unplugged” series at Town Hall, it has become fashionable for performers to offer an unamplified selection. Mitchell, who had appeared in a concert version of “South Pacific” at Carnegie Hall soon be telecast by PBS, chose “This Nearly Was Mine,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s defining moment of heartbreak and long-ing. It was beautifully rendered and turned out to be a triumphant moment for Mitchell. Illustrating a Broadway that used to be, he demonstrated a clearly defined voice that could whisper and soar and reach the far corners of an auditorium.
Mitchell will be honored as a Living Legend along with Elaine Stritch at the Nightlife Awards at Town Hall on Feb. 6.