Brian Mitchell: Riding High on Broadway's Tide
Toomer, Jeanette, Black Masks
Brian Mitchell: Riding High on Broadway's Tide.
After replacing Gregory Hines last season in Jelly s Last Jam, Brian Mitchell now rides high as the co-star of the long-running hit, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Since February, Mitchell has enjoyed rave reviews for his portrayal of the macho political prisoner, Valentin. This intense and powerful musical, written by Terrence McNally and directed by veteran Broadway director Harold Prince, has provided the perfect vehicle for Mitchell to showcase the depth of his acting talent and his remarkable singing voice.
In a recent interview in his dressing room backstage at the Broadhurst Theatre, Mitchell spoke about his portrayal of the callous Valentin. "I feel that I have an affinity for playing these kinds of roles, like Valentin in this show and Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam. They really give an actor something to sink his teeth into," he explains..."You can find a sense of reality that people can relate to on a very personal level...I think that's what makes it easier, in a lot of ways, than a lighter role."
According to Mitchell, with escapist musicals comes a more difficult challenge. "In a light role," he notes, "you're always trying to find what do I do with this guy? How do I make him interesting? What do I do to make him different?...For my personal taste, I'd much prefer to see a show like this which has both the light moments and the heavy moments and the passion and human frailties...just as you do in life."
Despite his preference, the versatile performer has already played in several light musical comedies, in regional theatre and on Broadway. In 1988, Mitchell appeared on Broadway in Mail, a short-lived musical comedy, and again in 1990, in Oh, Kay!, a David Merrick revival, featuring a Black cast. Both shows bombed due to a combination of weak premise (Mail) and bad direction combined with racial tones that were embarrassing (Oh, Kay!). Yet Mitchell received a Theatre World Award for Mail, accolades for his singing talents in Oh, Kay! and was labeled a "major find."
While it's more common for actors to achieve success in theatre and then head west for the promise of movies and television, Mitchell has done the reverse. He is probably best known for his eight-year stint as Dr. Jackpot Jackson on the television series, Trapper John, MD. And he may also be remembered as the spurned suitor of Chicken George's daughter in the miniseries, Roots: The Next Generation. Most recently, he played Trevor Collins on NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Collins was the narcissistic news anchor who died while bungee-jumping and proposing marriage to Hillary at the same time.
Mitchell moved from this highly visible television career back to the stage and to his first love: music. "I always seemed to have a gift for music and a quick ear," he says. "My parents bought me a little fan organ when I was six years old. I would sit down and pick things out on it without even having lessons." He also started playing piano at the age of six. "I just fell in love with it and played every day until I was eighteen," says Mitchell.
Involvement in theatre did not come until later. He explains, "My brother George was always the thespian in the family. From the time I was six to fourteen, we lived overseas [where George] was `Mr. Theatre'...the star of all the shows. My middle brother, John, also got involved in the theatre. And I stayed away from that because I felt that that was their realm. My place was always music. I was playing trombone and a bunch of other instruments."
Mitchell's break into theatre came when the family moved back to the States. His oldest brother graduated and John attended a different high school. "In ninth grade, when I was signing up for courses, they said, `O.K., you have to take an elective. Do you want to take chorus, band, or drama?' I had taken chorus every day of my life. I was tired of that, really. I decided that I was going to try drama. …