Putting It Together

The Performing Arts Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas doesn’t have a theme song.

If it did, however, it might go something like this:

“Bit by bit, putting it together, piece by piece, only way to make a work of art …”

Stephen Sondheim’s staccato lyrics (from “Sunday in the Park With George”) definitely apply when it comes to putting together a season, according to Larry Henley, director of artistic programming and production at UNLV’s Performing Arts Center.

This season’s ingredients range from such world-class classical performers as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Denyse Graves and Yefim Bronfman to Tony-winning Broadway veterans Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Ebersole, plus jazz masters, diverse dance ensembles and international troupes visiting from Mexico, Russia and points in between.

But Sondheim’s “Putting It Together” also suits a performer putting together an act.

Just ask Mitchell, who kicks off the Performing Arts Center’s 2007-08 season tonight at Artemus Ham Hall.

“I tailor it to the venue, the occasion,” Mitchell says of his concerts, which have taken him from the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie Hall. (He’s currently preparing for his first solo concert at New York’s famed concert hall, a benefit for the Actors’ Fund — he’s the president — Oct. 15.)

Sometimes the accent’s on Mitchell’s Broadway roots, from his Tony-winning turn in a hit revival of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” to acclaimed portrayals in such musicals as “Man of La Mancha,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Sometimes, however, Mitchell draws upon cabaret and jazz influences “just to change it up,” he says during a telephone interview from his New York home, as he takes a break from playtime with his 3-year-old son, Ellington.

Unlike a long Broadway run, where it’s “eight times a week, forever and ever, amen,” a concert enables Mitchell to “just show up and be me and do what I do,” he explains.

Then again, “it’s a greater responsibility,” he admits. “If the show sucks, it’s because of me.”

Not that Mitchell’s performances have prompted the use of the verb “sucks” in recent — or not-so-recent — memory.

Described by The New York Times as “the last leading man,” Mitchell’s powerful baritone and powerhouse presence have earned raves from audiences and critics alike.

As “Ragtime’s” Coalhouse Walker, Mitchell “is so charismatic critics should wish they’d never used the word before,” wrote the New York Post’s Clive Barnes. Mitchell’s Tony-winning “Kiss Me Kate” turn “confirms his status as a rarity in American theater these days: a bona fide musical matinee idol with a sly sense of humor,” commented New York Times critic Ben Brantley.

Even in a drama, Mitchell’s talent sings; according to Associated Press critic Michael Kuchwara, Mitchell played the title role in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” with “messianic intensity.”

Although tonight’s UNLV appearance marks his public debut as a Las Vegas solo act, Mitchell has performed here before — recently at an Urban League convention and, more than 30 years ago, as part of a San Diego song-and-dance troupe called the Bright Side.

During his teen years in San Diego, Mitchell augmented stage training with preparation for film work — and wound up making his showbiz breakthrough on television, where roles in “Roots: The Next Generation” and “The White Shadow” led to a seven-season stint on “Trapper John, M.D.”

After playing cocky intern Justin “Jackpot” Jackson from 1979 to 1986, however, “I could barely get arrested,” recalls Mitchell, who also scored certain episodes. But he had a secret weapon: Nobody knew about his stage training and musical talents.

Following several cartoon voice-over jobs (from “Tiny Toon Adventures” to “Captain Planet and the Planeteers”), Mitchell returned to the stage at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, in the musical “Mail!” And when “Mail!” went to New York, Mitchell went along, earning a Theatre World Award for outstanding Broadway debut.

Since then, Mitchell’s called Broadway home professionally — although he’s turned to the concert stage while awaiting his next challenge on the Great White Way.

“I am always looking for the next show,” Mitchell admits.

So is UNLV’s Henley, who’s already working on next year’s PAC season.

The current season, however, includes a number of performers who have been on his wish list for years.

Mezzo-soprano Graves, for example.

“We’ve been trying to get her for a number of years,” Henley says of the Europe-based opera star, who performs Oct. 26.

Similarly, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which Henley describes as “one of the great modern dance companies,” has been a possibility “for four or five years,” he points out. “We were finally able to get a date that made sense.” (That date: Oct. 13.)

Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, meanwhile, appears twice in January — soloing Jan. 23, then three days later conducting the UNLV Symphony Orchestra during the university’s 50th anniversary concert.

(Perlman, who’s played UNLV before, is definitely a Vegas kind of guy, Henley says, recalling one post-concert evening when he was waiting — and waiting — for Perlman to call it a night. Instead, the virtuoso played craps at Bellagio into the wee small hours, “one crutch under his arm, leaning up against the table, and he’s got the bones in his hand.”)

Perlman’s solo concert is part of the long-running Charles Vanda Master Series, which began in 1976 and remains “our primary series — and probably always will be,” Henley says. The New York Stage & Beyond Series, launched in 1987, and the Classical Guitar Series, embarking on its second season, augment the PAC’s “unique place in the community,” Henley says, citing a lineup that represents “a little bit of an escape and departure from the norm.”

After all, “there’s something (audiences) can get from a live performance that they can’t get” in their living rooms, parked in front of a flat-screen TV, Henley maintains. “There’s a sense of community that comes with being in an audience of 800 to 1,000 people. It’s almost like you’re a part of the show.”

Or, as Stephen Sondheim would phrase it, “Having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution. Putting it together — that’s what counts.”

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