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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lara Downes - A New World A-Comin'
Arizona Musicfest
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of The Truth About Winnie Ruth Judd, Nina West with Seth Rudetsky and Peter and the Starcatcher

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lara Downes
Photo courtesy of Arizona Musicfest
February 12th marked the 100th anniversary of the premiere of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." To mark this special date, Arizona Musicfest presented a concert headlined by Tony-winning singer/actor Brian Stokes Mitchell and Grammy-nominated pianist Lara Downes. Titled "A New World A-Comin'," the concert featured a gorgeous delivery of that classic Gershwin piece along with more than a dozen well-known compositions, almost all from the first half of the 20th century.

Mitchell won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for the 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate, although he's probably best known for creating the part of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the musical Ragtime, and Downes is a talented musician who was awarded "2022 Classical Woman of the Year" from NPR's Performance Today. Their concert featured an assortment of songs and musical pieces that celebrated the musical legacies of not only Gershwin but others that included Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Billy Strayhorn, with informative patter by Mitchell and Downes about the composers and the musical pieces.

Mitchell and Downes have performed together previously and their friendship and admiration for each other was apparent throughout. The evening started off with "The Strayhorn Concerto," a piece that was commissioned for Downes by the Boston Pops and the Philadelphia Orchestra, built on three Billy Strayhorn songs: "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," "Strange Feeling," and "Something to Live For." It's a lush and romantic arrangement that allowed Downes to exhibit her expressive piano skills.

Other songs in the first part of the concert included "I've Got You Under My Skin" (Cole Porter) and "The Best Is Yet to Come" (Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh) both of which had driving, upbeat arrangements. A pairing of "Take the 'A' Train," which has music by Strayhorn, with Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People" from Company was upbeat and witty, while Mitchell and Downes' version of Strayhorn's "Lush Life" was dramatic and moving, with expert piano playing and crisp vocals. A playful arrangement of "The Waters of March" by Antônio Carlos Jobim followed, with a fun, romantic medley that featured "The Very Thought of You" (Ray Noble), George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take that Away from Me" and "Embraceable You," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light" (music by Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James and lyrics by Don George), which ended the first half of the concert.

A soft yet soaring version of "Feeling Good," from Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, opened the second act and featured an a capella beginning that allowed Mitchell's voice to shine. Mitchell appeared in the revival of Shuffle Along, and Downes believes that George Gershwin was inspired by the music in that show, as he saw it several times. A solo piano arrangement of "Love Will Find a Way," by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, which Downes' delivered beautifully. A bright, fun, and moving "What a Wonderful World" (Bob Thiele and George David Weiss) afforded Mitchell the chance to show off his musical abilities by playing the melodica. A medley of romantic Gershwin songs closed out the second half of the show.

While all of those numbers received exceptional renditions, the two most impressive of the evening were the glorious version of "Rhapsody of Blue" that Downes said Gershwin called "the musical kaleidoscope of America" and a snapshot of that specific time in history, and a soaring delivery of "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" (Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion) from Man of La Mancha, which served as an encore.

Matthew Kasper's conducting of the Musicfest Pops Ensemble was superb throughout, as was the exceptional playing by every member of this large orchestra, which was especially apparent during "Rhapsody of Blue" which featured many impressive solo moments from the orchestra. Mitchell's powerful and clear voice resonated on "Impossible Dream" with its passionate delivery, crisp notes, and clear diction that ended the evening on an emotional high.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lara Downes - A New World A-Comin' performed at the Arizona Musicfest on Monday, February 12, 2024. Information for upcoming Arizona Musicfest concerts can be found at