Brian Stokes Mitchell’s glorious baritone has lent velvety warmth and authority to his performances in such musicals as “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Ragtime” and “Man of La Mancha.” Appearing without the artifice of period costumes, a narrative or even a set to call his own in solo show “Love/Life,” Broadway’s most dashing leading man seems no less in character in the role of a crooning lounge lizard. However, there’s something naggingly mechanical about this detour into nightclub nostalgia, which debuted at Feinstein’s at the Regency earlier this year and might have been more at home in that cozy cabaret haunt than on the Vivian Beaumont stage.
The show plays through May 23 Sunday and Monday nights, when “The Light in the Piazza” is between perfs, replicating the schedule for “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” last year. But while Cook’s tour through the musical theater canon and her personal reminiscences over a six-decade career managed magically to illuminate the vast space, Mitchell’s slick but rather soulless show seems an awkward fit.
Early on, he confesses to having imagined doing such a show for a few friends in his living room, adding, “Well, this is a little bigger than my living room but you all feel like friends and it feels so intimate.” But saying so doesn’t make it true.
As smooth as Mitchell’s dexterous vocals undeniably are, the singer’s approximation of a finger-snapping Mel Torme/Tony Bennett/Rat Pack-style feels like a self-conscious pose. The jazzy vocal arrangements too often sound mannered, steamrolling the emotion in the show’s mix of musical theater songs and pop standards. It’s almost as if the seductive power of Mitchell’s formidable voice is competing with the imagined din of slot machines and yapping cocktail waitresses.
The singer is at his best here when acting other roles, notably as he assumes a child’s persona on Bruce Hornsby’s enchanting spelling-bee song “Hooray for Tom” or firing up into Don Quixote mode for “The Impossible Dream.” Conveying the transporting joy of being a new father in Maury Yeston’s “New Words,” Mitchell shows a more gentle, generous side than in the affectation of the jazzier numbers. Likewise, a high point is the smoky anguish he brings to “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
Mitchell’s 1,000-watt smile and knowing deployment of his polished charms fit neatly enough on numbers like “Take the A Train,” but when he segues into Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” from “Company,” the glib showman treatment here seems to betray the meaning of this song about Big Apple alienation and emptiness. Mercifully, there’s nothing in “Love/Life” to rival the singer’s up-tempo assassination of Sondheim’s “Pretty Women” at the composer’s 75th birthday gala. Mitchell’s virtuoso scat stylings frequently seem like gratuitous embellishments that shut out emotional interpretation. Given the chosen subject implicit in this show’s title, the effect is distancing.
The repertoire draws from the predictable well of Porter, Gershwin and Wellington in addition to more recent songs such as John Bucchino’s tender “Grateful,” which Mitchell begins wistfully, sitting solo at the piano, before being rejoined by the band for an anthemic build. Despite the liberal sprinkling of show tunes — including a nod to Cy Coleman via “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and John Williams’ jazz rethink of “Show Me,” from “My Fair Lady” — not to mention the subtitle, “A Life in Song,” on the Playbill, Mitchell shows little inclination to reflect on his career in musicals, his over-rehearsed patter adhering to a generic sentimental vein.
While the show is way more Vegas than Broadway, Mitchell’s magnificent voice still dips and soars through his extensive range with commanding ease and elegance, and his five-piece band, led by music director Gerard D’Angelo on piano, certainly cooks. Too bad so much talent is being channeled into such a fabricated entertainment, instead of into songs laced with more genuine feeling.