Wringing fresh meaning out of a workhorse show tune like "The Impossible Dream" is no easy task. It's identified strongly with the legendary Richard Kiley, who sang it for years in the show "Man of La Mancha." What's more, it's a staple for karaoke stars and lounge singers everywhere, as well as part of a popular cast album from that '60s show that penetrated to nearly every hamlet in the country.
But Brian Stokes Mitchell, now starring in a Broadway revival of "Man of La Mancha," has managed that seemingly impossible scheme, reviewers say. A New York Times review said Mr. Mitchell's rendition makes "Impossible Dream" sound "as if it had never set foot in Las Vegas," while noting how his baritone voice "seems to cover everything around him in plush velvet."
"Stokes," as Mitchell is called by his friends and coworkers, says he "thought long and hard" about how to approach "The Impossible Dream," realizing "it's probably one of the five or 10 most famous songs in the world." What makes it great, he said in a phone interview before a recent performance, "is that it seems to mean something personal to everybody."
In Mr. Kiley's day, listeners found allusions to the Vietnam War in the song. The night after the space shuttle exploded, Stokes thought of the lost astronauts as he sang "This is my quest/ to follow that star/ no matter how hopeless/ no matter how far ... to reach the unreachable star."
Though he has heard Kiley's classic recording, Stokes never had a chance to meet him (Kiley died in 1999). "His niece came to the show.... It was really nice.... I kind of feel that his spirit has been around [this production] and I told her that." The show is being staged at the Martin Beck Theatre, the same theater where Kiley performed.
Mitchell has wanted to perform the role of Don Quixote ever since he appeared as one of the muleteers in a production of "Man of La Mancha" at San Diego's Belleville Dinner Theater when he was just 17 years old.
"I remember looking at the lead, who did a really wonderful job, and thinking, 'Wow, someday I'd like to do that!' " Even then, the songs fit comfortably in the heart of his sonorous baritone.
Within a few years, the tall, handsome Mitchell had snagged a regular role on the '80s TV series "Trapper John, M.D." But his remarkable singing voice led him back to musical theater, where he followed Gregory Hines on Broadway in "Jelly's Last Jam" and continued to make a favorable impression in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Ragtime."
In 2000, he won a Tony for his lead in the revival of "Kiss Me Kate." He's also appeared in nonsinging dramas, such as the title role in August Wilson's "King Hedley II," which earned him another Tony nomination.
In that play, as in "Ragtime," Stokes played an African-American, which is the largest part of his own ethnic heritage. In "Kiss Me Kate" and "La Mancha," he has won raves playing roles usually identified with white actors. He professes to have no "agenda" in either seeking out or avoiding black characters.
"King Hedley II," he says, "transcends race. It's about human experience. And I think that's what so great about August Wilson. Though he writes specifically about the African-American experience, he's writing totally about the human experience when he does it. And that's why everybody is able to relate to it."
Mitchell's chief requirement for a role, he says, is that it's something he would enjoy playing eight times a week for a year or two. He also seeks out roles "that uplift humanity, hopefully, in some way or another."
Though nearly every critic has lauded Mitchell's performance, "La Mancha" has received mixed reviews. One writer called the show "a fatuous serving of '60s over-the-counterculture." That doesn't surprise Mitchell. "This is not a show for cynics," he says. "It's about becoming reattached to virtue and nobility and kindness and love and humanity. And those are very noncynical values."
It's a very simple fable, he says, "but it's got incredibly deep resonant things in it." Critics don't "always perceive how deep the show is hitting."
David Stone, lead producer for "Man of La Mancha," says simply that Mitchell's interest in starring in the musical is the reason it was revived. Mitchell, he says, embodies the values it expresses. "Besides having perhaps the most beautiful male voice on Broadway, Stokes believes that we can make the world a better place," Mr. Stone says. And like Kiley, Mitchell is capable of shoulder all the demands of a great role. "He is a singing actor and an acting singer," Stone says.
Though Mitchell doesn't rule out movies or TV in his future, musical theater "is what I love. It's what I think my talents are best suited for. I would love doing musical films, if that were a popular thing, but it's not the Gene Kelly era and all that."
He's also got a solo album he's been trying to finish. "I'm producing, arranging, orchestrating, conducting, and playing keyboards. But when you do eight shows a week, it doesn't leave you much voice for an album."