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Bernardine Mitchell’s voice gives ‘Magi’ its heart

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Bernardine Mitchell plays the role of Willy in the Theatrical Outfit's staging of "The Gifts of the Magi."
Bernardine Mitchell rehearses a scene from the musical "The Gifts of the Magi" at the Theatrical Outfit. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

Bernardine Mitchell rehearses a scene from the musical “The Gifts of the Magi” at the Theatrical Outfit. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

BY BO EMERSON / bemerson@ajc.com

Tom Key first got to know Bernardine Mitchell back in the 1980s, when she snatched him from the depths of despair, night after night, and sang him back to sanity.

They were in a show together — the Alliance Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Key was playing that old curmudgeon Scrooge, and each night he would meet the Ghost of Christmas Future, a ghost that tells him he is going to die alone and unmourned.

Each night, as Scrooge cowered on the ground, bereft, agonized, the angelic Mitchell would rescue him, gather him up in a hug, and sing “O Holy Night.”

“That was something, three years running, of which I never tired,” Key said.

The lanky, lantern-jawed Key and the beatific Mitchell are back together this holiday season in “The Gifts of the Magi,” a musical version of the O. Henry short story. It opens Dec. 6 at the Theatrical Outfit after two nights of previews.

Key is behind the scenes in this holiday production, as artistic director of the Theatrical Outfit, and Mitchell is the emotional center, an interlocutor who puts the play in motion and sings its most powerful theme, “Pockets.”

Bernardine Mitchell plays the role of Willy in the Theatrical Outfit's staging of "The Gifts of the Magi."

Bernardine Mitchell plays the role of Willy in the Theatrical Outfit’s staging of “The Gifts of the Magi.”

It’s the sort of life-affirming role that is suited to Mitchell’s personal charisma. To describe her energy, Key quotes Dylan Thomas: She is, he says, “part of nature’s sustaining power, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

Mitchell tends to politely set aside such praise, and claims her role is just one member of an ensemble. That six-person troupe ran through the play recently during a rehearsal at the Outfit’s downtown headquarters, in a Luckie Street storefront that used to be Herren’s restaurant and now is called the Balzer Theater.

The cast includes Nick Arapoglou and Caroline Freedlund as Jim and Della, the struggling young couple who face a New York City Christmas with no money but with a fierce desire to give.

Mitchell, 61, plays a news vendor named Willy who narrates the tale. During this rehearsal, she clutches a script in one hand, but consults it only once or twice. Five feet 10 and broad-shouldered, she is dressed casually in a brown T-shirt that reads “My Mind Not Only Wanders, Sometimes It Leaves Completely.” Her braids, highlighted with a touch of gray, are tied up in a tangle.

The first few songs take her voice down into Sarah Vaughan territory, low, cello tones that verge on a female baritone’s register. The two-octave part was actually written for a man. While auditioning for another role, Mitchell mentioned to musical director S. Renee Clark that Willy was in her vocal range.

Clark and director Heidi Cline McKerley decided to rearrange the vendor’s gender, and Ms. Willy was born.

Bernardine Mitchell, center, and other cast members of the musical "The Gifts of The Magi" rehearse a scene at the Theatrical Outfit. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

Bernardine Mitchell, center, and Caroline Freedlund and Nick Arapoglou rehearse a scene of the musical “The Gifts of The Magi” at Theatrical Outfit. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL

Mitchell, the seventh of eight children, was raised by her mother, Rosa Lee Mitchell, who remained single after her first husband died. In 1964, the family moved from Woodville, Ga., to Atlanta, relocating to a house right on Auburn Avenue.

A strict missionary Baptist, Rosa Lee didn’t countenance blues music, mouthy children or dancing on Sunday. Amazingly, her seventh child won a full music scholarship to the eminent Oberlin College in Ohio, with the help and guidance of a choir director at Murphy High School.

Bernardine (the Germanic name means “brave bear”) returned to Atlanta to launch a career as a jazz vocalist, and fronted her own trio for 15 years, but it wasn’t a perfect fit. She needed community, and the theater provided it.

The Clarkston resident has bounced between New York City and Atlanta, appearing in “La Divina Caricatura” with Mabou Mines in New York and touring Europe and North America as Antigone with the Blind Boys of Alabama in the titanic “The Gospel at Colonus.” This is the third time the Theatrical Outfit has staged this version of “Magi,” which also includes elements of another O. Henry story, “The Cop and the Anthem.”

During this rehearsal, Mitchell moves with her colleagues as if they were part of a dance troupe. But when she sings, the spotlight finds her.

Her diction is intense. Some of her consonants seem shot from an air gun. She aims some notes at the ceiling, like a trumpet player. In the song “Pockets,” she maintains a magnetic tension that commands the listener to stop breathing until she is done.

The sparse audience at the rehearsal includes a lighting designer, a costumer and a stage manager. All erupt in applause.

“I’m a wreck,” says Key, sniffing happily in one corner.

Later, Mitchell takes a moment to examine the show’s spiritual message.

The authors, Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts, are focused on the spirit behind the act of giving, she says. “They are saying when we give and receive, WE are the Magi … That when we have nothing else, we have love, and when we have that, we have everything. I’m getting emotional just saying it.”

SHOW PREVIEW

“The Gifts of the Magi”

Dec. 4-21 (with preview performances on Dec. 4-5). 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Dec. 20. Tickets $20-$50. The Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. N.W., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org/.


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