A tiny woman comes onstage, dressed in an elegant, sleeveless, knee-length, black dress and takes command. Behind her and to her right there is only a piano with a wonderful accompanist seated there. She begins to sing, and her voice is stunningly expressive and strong. At times, on just the right syllable or beat, she moves one or both of her alabaster arms or shoulders, often just barely, conveying worlds of meaning and feeling. The variety of emotion and thought she has and makes us feel and think is astonishing. I am 65, and I consider that it is still too rare that we witness in a woman such power and such utter comfort in it. She is Bebe Neuwirth.
After intermission, Brian Stokes Mitchell takes the stage. I know he is a Tony-winning musical theatre performer whom I first saw in Kismet on Broadway and wondered why I had not known about him before. In a rich, commanding, compelling voice and totally engaging manner, he tells us that he loves playing villains and that he was raised on jazz with which his father filled their home. He is broad-shouldered, and he emanates the strength and self-assuredness -- without any sign of self-centeredness -- usually called masculine. Early on, he says he is going to sing a song usually sung by a woman..."But not tonight!" he says with a huge smile. He sings Cole Porter's poignant song, "Love for Sale," which includes these words:
"Love for sale.
Appetizing young love for sale.
If you want to buy my wares,
Follow me, and climb the stairs.
Love for sale."
Since the words are usually thought to be those of a young prostitute, we wonder, "Is he singing as a young male prostitute? Is he the pimp?" It doesn't matter, because as he sings, we feel the vulnerability of whoever is selling their love. He moves us.
He does some Gershwin, Broadway show tunes, fabulous jazz whose every beat he savors. Not long into his part of the show, we have become completely his.
His encore consists of two songs. By now, he has referred to the importance of the musical "South Pacific" in breaking the mold of the musical comedy to expose the ugliness of and the pain caused by racism, and later, he has told us that his father is one of the Tuskegee Airmen, at which point the surprise of the audience, which has mostly assumed he is white, is clear.
Introducing the first encore song, he speaks of the hope for which he believes America stands...and you believe that he deeply believes that. Singing a capella, he begins "America" -- "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies." More enchanting, more spellbinding with every word to which he brings full meaning. He comes to the line we all know as "God shed his grace on thee." Here is how he sings it: "God shed her grace on thee." There wasn't a murmur. There wasn't a laugh. His sincerity was crystal-clear. I have never seen anything like it. I know that soon comes the line he will of course sing as it was written, because it would never do to use the female term once without balancing it out with a male one. But what he sings is "And crown thy good with sisterhood." Not a murmur, not a chuckle. Not even an indignant exhale of breath from an audience of nearly 1,000. Stunning. Revolution as magic.
©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved