By Jane Recker
The program for The Men & Their Music at the Apollo Theater states that Ron Hawking has been dubbed “Chicago’s Entertainer”—a high title to live up to in a city with as many gifted performers as the Windy City.
It seems that the moniker is self-endowed. While Hawking does entertain, his pomposity and uninformed creative choices make this performance far from legendary.
Hawking, best known for His Way – A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra and The Men & Their Music, the musical on which this performance is based, is back again with a problematic tribute to male singers and composers of the standards in an updated concert version of The Men & Their Music.
That’s not to say that male composed/sung classics shouldn’t be celebrated: these jazz standards are beautiful, timeless pieces of music that should remain part of our current canon. What shouldn’t be celebrated, though, is the era in which they were created; one where the white male reigned supreme and all others were second-class citizens. Hawking’s show does just that, creating an atmosphere palpably uncomfortable for all but a small demographic.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hawking’s treatment of women, subjugating them to categorization through the 1950’s standard of the Madonna-Whore complex. The former is found in that of the submissive wives in the audience quietly sitting under their inebriated husbands’ arms (thanks to Apollo’s allowance of drinks within the theater itself), and the latter is found in his backup singers Rainee Denham and Kathy Sparrenberger.
Hawking and his all-male band look comfortable in their black t-shirts and black slacks, which makes it all the more ridiculous when Denham and Sparrenberger emerge wearing red silk corsets, black tulle miniskirts, suede thigh high boots and enough costume jewelry to sink a ship, topped off with matching, dollar store, brunette bob wigs. These garish costumes and their synchronized dancing do nothing but distract from the music, and the only solo performance from the women – an anemic “All That Jazz” from Denham – seems to be included only to meet some quota as the obligatory female piece.
Perhaps this could be seen as a careless oversight made by someone not quite with the times, but Hawking’s self-assuredness and arrogance negates that possibility. His strut and penchant for gloating about his accomplishments might have been acceptable for a Sinatra. But Hawking is no Sinatra.
He does have a fine voice with a rich, clear quality in the lower and middle parts of his range, and had he chosen songs more suited for his baritone register this review might be more favorable. Instead, Hawking consistently tries to push his vocal limits by singing in keys too high for his natural voice, creating an unpleasant, strained, nasal tone.
As if to exacerbate this, he attempts to invoke the quipped singing style of Michael Bublé in his jazz songs, utterly destroying any sense of line or phrase and creating a semi-robotic sound. Thankfully, he doesn’t use this awful technique in his Italian pieces, like “Knights in White Satin,” where his voice spins and resonates on the long, arching phrases. Even then, Hawking is too sure of himself, commenting to the audience “if that doesn’t give you chills, nothing will.” Pleasant to the ear? Yes. Chill-inducing? Not quite.
The sound design doesn’t give Hawking any help. The three-piece band is heavily accompanied by synth tracks that sound like they were pulled straight from a MIDI file, and Hawking’s mic has the echo effect turned up to an almost comic level. The final result leaves the man and his music sounding like something out of a karaoke bar as opposed to a swanky jazz club.
This show does have something unique compared to all other shows, though: it’s the impressions that save this performance. Hawking is an impressive impersonator, running the gambit from Dean Martin to Frankie Valli, and nailing every one. In fact, it’s in his impressions where Hawking’s voice shines; there is a sense of line and emotional connection that isn’t there when singing in his own voice. Hawking should take a lesson from the men he so idolizes and incorporate their good technique into his own singing.
So, if you’re an unenlightened white male over the age of 50, this show might be for you. If you don’t fit into that demographic, skip it. In the city of jazz there are a plethora of places to hear music that is far better for far cheaper.
Apollo Theater Chicago presents “The Men and Their Music” through October 1 at 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.