By Ellen Fagg Weist, The Salt Lake Tribune
“This theater is lucky to have you all,” Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell told the first audience at Salt Lake City’s sparkling new Eccles Theater. “Take good care of this house.”
In his performance, Mitchell was the ultimate showman, commanding the stage with his roof-rattling renditions of Broadway favorites. And particularly in his rich staging of “Stars” from “Les Miserables,” which he acknowledged as a favorite of arts patron Spence Eccles, he displayed the theater’s technical fireworks, nodding to the ceiling’s sparkling star field.
On behalf of all the night’s performers, Mitchell thanked arts supporters, from donors to ticket holders. “We can’t do what we do without you,” said Mitchell, who keeps returning to perform in Utah after his notable turn in 2008 with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for its annual Christmas concert.
Every theater seems to have a different personality, said Mitchell, praising Utah audiences who don’t just love the arts, but perform them. Mitchell invited the audience of more than 2,100 to inject the right spirit into the theater.
Watching the news lately can be depressing, the actor said, but a palace of the arts, built on dreams, such as the Eccles offers hope. And then he launched into a breathtaking a cappella version of “America the Beautiful” to put the right spirit in the house.
Earlier, galagoers received a joint welcome from Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who introduced Spence Eccles. The businessman praised this magnificent facility named for his uncle George and aunt Lolie, who were committed to supporting Salt Lake City’s downtown arts.
But Eccles charmed the crowd, who gave him the night’s first standing ovation, by singing lyrics from “Wizard of Oz” and “Fiddler on the Roof” in a loving ode to the theater.
The show’s host, Broadway icon Rita Moreno, 84, nodded to Utahns’ love of music, kicking things off with Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” in a clever number arranged by the show’s music director, Kurt Bestor, that included a young pianist showing off a passionate version of “Chopsticks.”
The show featured Mitchell and Broadway star Megan Hilty (of “Wicked” and TV’s “Smash”), who sparkled in black sequins and skyscraper-high stilettos, acknowledging the “baby bump in the room” and perhaps another generation of performers.
The show also prominently featured local performers, including the Ballet West orchestra and dancers, who performed a knockout excerpt from a new piece that will premiere on the Eccles stage in May.
Also historic was the first joint performance of Salt Lake City’s two nationally prominent contemporary companies, Repertory Dance Theatre and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.
Before the event, theatergoers who paid between $50 to $250 for tickets mingled in the dramatic lobby.
Patrons were invited to a backdoor afterparty on Regent Street, once home to the city’s rumbling news presses, now being remodeled as a pedestrian walkway.
The art-filled facility, designed by Connecticut-based architect Cesar Pelli in conjunction with Salt Lake City’s HKS Architects, officially opened with a ribbon-cutting event Tuesday. Festivities continue with an open house featuring a variety of Utah performers Saturday, as well as building tours Sunday.
Also notable will be the Sunday morning broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Music and the Spoken Word,” the first time in 88 years “America’s Choir” has taped the show outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Tabernacle or Conference Center.
But on Friday night, the stage — under the performers who broke it in — was the thing.