Chicago Theater Review: BARITONES UNBOUND (Royal George Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 14, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Despite the name, Baritones UnBound is no comedy about musical kinkiness. A kind of theatrical rebuttal to The Three Tenors (and its many spinoffs), it offers equal time and retributive justice to the middle voice in the repertory of male vocalists. The baritone register, occupying a strategic place between the heroic and heavenly tenor and the sometimes base bass, is, according to Tony-nominee Marc Kudisch’s clever script (created with Merwin Foard, Jeff Matsey, and accompanist Timothy Splain), richly placed between heaven and earth. That’s good enough, as famed baritones Mark Delavan, Nathan Gunn, and Kudisch delightfully explain, for the likes of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash, and Paul Robeson—not to mention operatic stars from the eccentric 19th-century idol Antonio Tamborini to the very three bravura gents on the Royal George stage.

Mark Delavan, Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn Nathan Gunn

In 150 entertaining, often amusing, minutes, the mid-voice trio trace the history of the baritone back to ancient Greece, Gregorian chants, courtly musicales, and ultimately the European revolutions in 1789 and 1848 that shook up music as much as empires. The baritone, they argue, became the voice of Everyman, most notably through Papageno, the proletarian bird-catcher in the first great opera to feature one–The Magic Flute (1791). Mozart, it seems–who gave the common touch to immortal melodies–paved the way for Sweeney Todd. Figaro, Beaumarchais’ groundbreaking barber, becomes through Mozart and Rossini the archetype of change to come. Combining the playfulness of “opera buffa” and the nobility of “opera seria,” the baritone seemed the perfect exponent for a democracy tempered by nobility. (The voice also belonged to the anti-hero: In Oklahoma! both the good guy Curley and the bad brute Jude Fry are baritones. Go figure.)

Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn, Mark Delavan 3 Mark Delavan

Employing the tools of their trade, their wonderful voices, as perfect illustrations of an underrated vocal color, the dynamic threesome trace the baritone’s evolution from 18th-century origins, through bel canto (Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi), “sturm und drang” (Richard Wagner), verismo (the magnificent Prologue from Pagliacci), operetta (Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance), the crooners of radio’s golden age, and finally the Broadway musical (despite a paucity of good baritone roles from 1985 to last year). They pay fulsome tributes to the likes of John Raitt, Alfred Drake, Gordon MacRae, Robert Goulet, and Ezio Pinza (“Some Enchanted Evening” opens the show and delivers what it promises). Far from empty boosting, Kudisch is quick to point out how the sporadic success of operatic, radio, and Broadway baritones sometimes triggered backlash reactions, fallow periods when the voice fell out of favor. This show should do much to reverse this.

Nathan Gunn 2 Marc Kudisch, Mark Delavan, Nathan Gunn

It’s fascinating how when all three—known as the Barihunk (Kudisch), the Hunkitone (Gunn) and The Voice of God (Delavan)–combine their talents, famous songs become conversations, like Billy Bigelow’s intense soliloquy from Carousel. The same miracle happens with Jerry Herman’s 1983 declaration of independence “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles. Wonderful selections abound from Kiss Me, Kate!, Man of La Manchaand Guys & Dolls, as well as hits from famous predecessors like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and a terrific tribute to “Old Blues Eyes” on his centenary. Interestingly, when the triumvirate intone the Neapolitan ballad that fueled Elvis’ hit “It’s Now Or Never,” they’re directly poaching on Three Tenors territory. They even play a game of “Stump the Baritone!” as the audience guesses which Broadway seasons yielded the biggest baritone favorites.

A showcase for all seasons, Baritones UnBound is impeccably mounted by director David Dower on a museum-quality set by producer Hershey Felder, its cyclorama embellished with appropriate projections, and superbly accompanied by picturesque Timothy Splain. No need to pick favorite selections among the three belters, where each magisterial sound captivates you until the next conquers the field. Unbound indeed!

Mark Delavan Marc Kudisch, Mark Delavan, Nathan Gunn 3

photos by Chuck Osgood

Baritones UnBound
Hershey Felder Presents
The Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted St
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on January 3, 2016
for tickets, call 312.988.9000 or visit Royal George

for info on Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

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