A venerable charity celebrated its 125th anniversary by inviting its president up onstage to sing a few songs. That could have been a recipe for a not-so-enchanting evening. But the Actors Fund is a unique organization, headed by the uniquely talented Brian Stokes Mitchell. The resulting evening at Carnegie Hall was a superb and memorable one.
Mitchell took control of the fabled stage with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. It’s no secret that he sings better than just about any leading man of today; put him out in front of an audience with a good song, and nobody on Broadway can top him.
“Some Enchanted Evening,” which he first sang at Carnegie in last year’s concert version of “South Pacific,” was truly thrilling; “My Friends,” from his mesmerizing “Sweeney Todd” at the Sondheim Festival at Kennedy Center, was chilling. And “The Impossible Dream,” with which he closed the first act, was far more stirring than when he sang it in the awkward revival of “Man of La Mancha.”
Mitchell was joined in duets by former leading ladies. Heather Headley, who in pre-star days understudied Audra McDonald in the Toronto production of “Ragtime” — and generated sparks with Mitchell in the Encores! staging of “Do Re Mi” — came on for a rousing “Wheels of a Dream.” Phylicia Rashad, who came into “Jelly’s Last Jam” with Mitchell as twin replacements, reprised “Last Chance Blues.”
Last and most dynamic was “South Pacific” co-star Reba McEntire, singing two songs from “Annie Get Your Gun”: “I Got Lost in His Arms” and (with Mitchell) “Old Fashioned Wedding.” They also essayed a second duet, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which, given the length of the evening, proved one too many.
Harolyn Blackwell, who was credited in the programs and houseboards, did not appear; she was replaced by Nikki Renee Daniels, whose Bess (in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) was not up to Mitchell’s Porgy.
There was a time when the Broadway musical had four strong-voiced leading men each of which was capable of carrying a show on his own, namely Alfred Drake, John Raitt, Richard Kiley and John Cullum. Mitchell is in that league, although it’s harder to establish yourself on a diet of revivals. It should be noted, however, that the program included songs by present-day Broadway composers Stephen Flaherty (the aforementioned “Ragtime” number), Maury Yeston (“New Words”), John Buccino (“Grateful”) and Adam Guettel (“How Glory Goes”).
While the second act had some slow spots, director Richard Jay-Alexander, who specializes in events of this nature, generally kept the show moving. Broadway’s top maestro, Paul Gemignani, led a hand-picked, 41-piece orchestra that included many of the street’s finest players. Strongest response came when they turned off the microphones and Mitchell delivered an unplugged “This Nearly Was Mine,” abetted by Jonathan Tunick’s adept orchestration.
Patti LuPone, who presented the Actors Fund medal of honor to Broadway attorney-producer John Breglio, drew the biggest laugh of the night. Referring to the infamous “Sunset Boulevard” affair, she offered, “It’s amazing what a large settlement can do to ease the pain of a big Broadway musical opening without you.”