By Patrick O’Brien
As a voice part, the baritone is neither here nor there, being too low for a tenor and too high for a bass. Or, in the parlance of operatic archetypes, neither a hero nor a villain. So where is he, then, or, what is he?
Hershey Felder’s neat little bonbon at the Royal George Theatre, Baritones Unbound, is a reasonably tasty answer.
Partly your favorite college lecture and partly a bro-out; three heavyweight baritones from opera and Broadway–Mark Delavan, Nathan Gunn and Marc Kudisch–take their audience on a rich two-thousand-year journey of a vocal register that they claim is taken entirely for granted. Being neither here nor there, the baritone is, instead, everywhere: in churches, on the stage, on the screen, and on the radio. And being neither hero nor villain, they are the common man, caught “between heaven and earth.”
This ambiguity of place, they argue, is what lends extra heft to an impressive roster of roles and singers. Say, how can Judd–the nominal villain of Oklahoma!–be seen purely as such when he sings “Lonely Room,” a song dedicated to a very human fear of isolation? (Or, going back to vocal archetypes again, how can he fully be the villain when both he and Curly–the nominal hero–are baritone roles?) Would, say, Elvis Presley have been so confounding to guardians of decency if his intent was obviously one way or the other, either as a clean-cut heavenly tenor or a debauched earthly bass?
In between the singing, dancing, shaving (in a scene from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) and guitar-strumming, all the great baritones are namechecked, toasted (“AL-FRED [Drake]!” “GOU-LET!”), and paid tribute, in chronological order, from Antonio Tamburini to Frank Sinatra. (And given credible imintations, too, especially Kudisch’s “b aba ba boo” Bing Crosby voice.) The creative highlight, though, probably has to go to a combination of Elvis’s “Now or Never” and Neapolitan opera (the name of which–and all the other songs–is not listed in the program, a rather regrettable choice).
The Three Baritones are indeed a merry trio, somewhere between (that word, again) the classiness of their tenor counterparts and the free-wheeling nature of Larry, Curly, and Moe. Half the fun particularly comes from watching Gunn and Delavan–world-class opera stars (and dontcha forget it)–let down their hair, as it were. However, Kudisch, the loosey-goosey Broadway actor of the bunch has the strongest command on the levity. (He even does the splits.) No surprise, considering he wrote the script, with assistance from Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey and Timothy Splain, the latter of whom also plays the piano very sensitively and very well.
The handsome array of bric-a-brac (by Felder, who also does the subtly effective projections, the busybody)–chandeliers, grand cloaks, and trunks trunks trunks–suggests the journeyman nature of the show. (It has had one previous production in Boston.) It’s rather fitting, considering these three men are on a mission to educate as well as delight, and if there’s any justice, they’ll continue to do so. However, some thoughts…
The tightrope between documentary theater excitement and stodginess is a perilous one, true, and esoterica can therefore only be used sparingly. That said, the show could possibly benefit from a pinch more geekery over baritones, especially if it namechecked composers more. It is one thing to name-check Sondheim (SOND-HEIM!), but how about namechecking, say, Ervin Drake, who wrote “It Was a Very Good Year,” as gorgeous a song as any? And was he explicitly drawn to the baritone sound, the divide between tenor and bass, heaven and earth, sweet pleasure and bitter regret? How about Irving Berlin and “White Christmas?” Especially since most of the songs come from before the singer-songwriter revolution of the ‘60s, the exclusion of many of these composers feels like an oversight.
Also, the second thesis of the show is that music is moved and shaped by Newtonian action and reaction. One of the most shocking moments comes near the end, during a grab-bag of Broadway baritone repertoire, when it seems the baritone had vanished completely from the Main Stem for thirtysome years. What happened? “The Beatles,” certainly, who shot popular music up an octave, but is that it? What if there was something deeper behind it, if at all? Kudisch and company could afford to dig a little deeper.
But those are small potatoes in a delightful holiday feast. The baritones are who they are, their own special creation, somewhere between heaven and earth, and they–the Everymen–are here for you. Catch them before they move along.
“Baritones Unbound” runs through January 3rd, 2016–as a strictly limited engagement–at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614. Performances are on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m., with additional performances on December 28th and 29th. However, there will be no performances on December 24th, 25th, or January 1st. All tickets are $60, and can be purchased at the Royal George Theatre box office or by calling (312) 988-9000. Tickets may also be purchased online at ticketmaster.com.