- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Brian Stokes Mitchell has laid down his blade and taken up tilting at windmills. His toffee-rich baritone and charged physical presence chilled audiences at this summer's Sondheim Celebration as Sweeney Todd, "the demon barber of Fleet Street," an obsessively possessed man who gave the phrase "a close shave" a whole new meaning.

Now, Mr. Mitchell has turned away from the dark side and is stepping into the light as Don Quixote in the musical, "Man of La Mancha," playing at the National Theatre through Nov. 11. The musical then goes into previews starting Nov. 19, at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre, and co-stars Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza and Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza.

Mr. Mitchell is the first black to play the role, a distinction he doesn't find all that earth-shattering since he has broken the "color barrier" before as Petruchio/Fred in the Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me, Kate," another role traditionally ascribed to white actors. He won a Tony for best actor in 2000 for his performance. "I'd rather not dwell on that. That's not why I take on roles," he says in a telephone interview during a rehearsal break for "La Mancha." "I look for heart in a character."

Speaking of heart, Mr. Mitchell feels that Washington is his spiritual home, since he has appeared here in the musicals "Sweeney Todd" and "Ragtime" (winning a Tony for his searing portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr.) and August Wilson's drama "King Hedley II" (garnering another Tony nomination) and now "Man of La Mancha." This is his first time at the National, but since Richard Kiley also played Quixote here, he believes there is "good energy." In his dressing room there is a wall with signatures on it from Raul Julia and Sheena Easton, who played Quixote and Aldonza in the last revival of "La Mancha."

We're taking that as a good omen," he says.

Since "Man of La Mancha" is so beloved in the public's memory, there are challenges to bringing it back when so many people have what they believe are concrete images of what the musical should be. "It is very much in everyone's collective psyche, not only because of the Broadway runs but because of community and high school productions," he says.

"We aren't approaching it as being renovated from the ground up but more like what happened with the recent revival of 'Carousel,' true to the source material but a new approach. We couldn't set 'La Mancha' in outer space or anything audiences just wouldn't be happy with that."

The advantage of a revival, he says, is that "the material is tried and true and you can dedicate yourself to what I call 'artful purpose' concentrating on your performance, the lighting and costumes. With a new show, you are trying to figure out if the show is working, how the show is working and songs are constantly moving or being cut, dialogue is in or tossed out. It is exciting, but you are pulled in so many directions at once."

Mr. Mitchell believed he was in for a break after "Sweeney Todd," but he committed right away to "La Mancha" because the show has "a great amount of heart. It takes us to a sweet, spiritual place, connecting us to joy, optimism and virtues things we might have forgotten."

His schedule is so tied up he can't continue with his cameos in the TV series "Frazier" and "Crossing Jordan."

"As much as I love doing those shows, it is impossible with doing eight performances a week. I have one day off and I have to rest, since with both 'La Mancha' and 'Sweeney Todd,' I am literally onstage the entire time."

Even though he most recently played the disturbed, murderous Sweeney, Mr. Mitchell still contends that people are basically decent. "It is part of our genetic code that we come to this planet as good people the rationalizing and the undermining of that goodness comes later," he says. "That is why we respond to a virtuous person, whether it is Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, or Don Quixote they speak to that innate goodness within us."

The flip side of this is our fascination with Jerry Springer, Anna Nicole Smith and "reality" TV shows where people are rewarded for outrageous and shocking behavior. Mr. Mitchell feels very passionately about this, noting that "virtue has not fallen out of favor as much as we now misconstrue what the virtues are. Now, we believe that youth, beauty, popularity and ambition are the virtues and revered qualities worth acquiring at any cost.

"I see all these headlines, stories and shows exploiting behavior at its worst, and I am filled with indignation at man's inhumanity to man," he says. "People are being destroyed by this lowering of standards."

Don Quixote, on the other hand, represents "nobility, kindness and civility the old-fashioned qualities that seem crazy now, but there is a princely craziness to both the character and the musical that is necessary for us to see right now." Quixote's brand of "insanity" rubs off on those around him, Mr. Mitchell says, "creating a magical, wonderfully innocent place."

The antithesis of innocence is the hard, craven life of Victorian England brought to life so magnificently in the summer's production of "Sweeney Todd." Even though Sweeney was a coldblooded killer, Mr. Mitchell defends him and not just because he feels an affinity for the ghoulish character because his birth date is the ghoulish Oct. 31. He feels the man had heart, albeit that of a different kind.

"'Sweeney Todd' is about darkness his murderous intentions and desires are all because he loves his wife. He becomes maniacal because that love has gotten all twisted up inside him," he continues. "I see it as a morality tale about the destructive power of revenge and the overwhelming power of love. The way the characters love in 'Sweeney' shows what happens when love goes over the top, crazily out of balance."

In fact, Sweeney reminds him of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the much put-upon character in "Ragtime." "They are two great human beings brought down by societal forces. And they both become mono-focused. That mono-focus, it's totally me," he says with a booming laugh.

Mr. Mitchell would like to do more Sondheim works. He likens Stephen Sondheim to Igor Stravinsky in his mastery of music and groundbreaking compositions. Mr. Mitchell also would like to return to the role of King Hedley in Mr. Wilson's play, which had its pre-Broadway run in Washington in 2001 at the Kennedy Center.

"I never got a chance to get the balance, the humor of Hedley, and I know it is there," he says. "The show was done so hastily I didn't get a chance to breathe. It was almost an impossible task to do a play as incredibly dense as 'King Hedley' with nine days to rehearse. I would really like another crack at that character."

Hedley and all the other characters he's played Quixote, Sweeney, Coalhouse, Valentin in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' "all are great, flawed men up against society," he says, "fighting to live the way they think is right. Not a bad bunch of men to portray."

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