Tuesday, December 15, 2015

'Baritones Unbound' Registers Delight as a Sublime Musical Documentary -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Baritones Unbound
Royal George Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 3, 2016

I'm a fan of documentary films, and I've long found that some of the most interesting and enjoyable ones are about subjects I wouldn't suspect to be particularly intriguing.

Although Baritones Unbound is a piece of live musical theater, and I haven't seen anyone except me equate it with a documentary, I find the parallels apt, including it being unexpectedly terrific.

In learning of the show, presented in Chicago by Hershey Felder at the Royal George Theatre but not with him in it, I initially didn't feel it all that important to learn about the history of baritone singers, supposedly the Rodney Dangerfields of operatic voice types.

It actually took two complimentary invitations for me to give it a chance, despite the cast including two renowned opera stars--Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan--and a noted Broadway performer, Marc Kudisch, who conceived and co-wrote the show.

Yet while my musical theater preference is for story-based shows, rather than revues or retrospectives--although Felder's solo musical biographies are excellent--receiving a bit of baritone backstory was reason enough to revel in the superlative singing of wonderful songs.

Accompanied by a fine pianist, Timothy Splain, some kitschy stage decor and supportive graphics, the three stars amiably ran through a history of baritones dating back to the middle ages.

Presenting the material largely in chronological order probably wouldn't equate to a highly inventive film documentary, but I found Baritones Unbound to be well-written, with Kudisch, Gunn and Delavan essentially serving as expert "interview subjects" who complement their commentary with scintillating examples of baritone singing.

Coming below Tenor--referenced as "the heavens"--and above the earthly Bass, Baritone is described as "the voice that celebrates the spirit of the common man." Although the vocal talents of the trio onstage are most definitely uncommon.

Within the relatively intimate Royal George, it was electrifying to hear Gunn and Delavan amply demonstrate why they regularly perform leading roles at prestigious opera houses around the world, with explanations informing that while it wasn't always in vogue for composers to write for baritones, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner were among the legends that did.

Kudisch was also quite impressive as the show went on to cover baritones in operetta, Broadway and pop veins, paying rich vocal tribute to numerous composers and singers I knew--Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Stephen Sondheim and more--while enlightening me about Antonio Tamburini, Titta Ruffo, Alfred Drake and others.

One could debate whether the depth, breadth and presentation of information in the 130-minute piece truly matched a first-rate documentary, or went well-beyond the Wikipedia entry for "Baritone," but I found it sufficiently illuminating and well-paced.

Referencing the ebbs & flows of baritones being forthrightly featured in opera, musicals, pop and more, the script didn't overdo the disrespect angle--and allowed for a variety of song stylings, sometimes with Kudisch and Delavan playing guitar--but did leave me wanting more causal insight when it mentioned that a "fundamental change in the content of Broadway" rendered baritone singers much less prominent in new musicals over the past 35 years.

But analysis of the expository content of Baritones Unbound probably doesn't do enough justice toward explaining why I found it to be a @@@@@ piece of entertainment.

Quite simply, it was a constant delight to hear three of the best male singers you'll ever hear--in any register--sing some of the finest songs ever written.

I won't name too many, as encountering them first-hand is part of the fun, but along with a number of operatic arias, favorites included "Some Enchanted Evening," "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," "Agony" (from Into the Woods), "White Christmas," "The Impossible Dream" and on the day that happened to be Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday, "I've Got You Under My Skin."

If nothing else, the show made me appreciate the variance in vocal types more than I ever had before. For in asking my mom pre-show if I was a baritone, she adroitly and accurately said, "No, monotone."

Sadly, I've never been able to carry a tune, which all the more served to make hearing three magnificent baritones do it so well an unbounded pleasure.

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