For the theater critic as well as the general fan, three expectations are associated with a production bearing the label, “Hershey Felder Presents.” Beautiful music, a solid history lesson and the weave of these two elements into an engaging story — that’s the Felder brand. And in bestowing his signature blessing on “Baritones Unbound,” another worthy show enters the already competitive Chicago holiday theater market.
Conceived and written by three-time Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch, who also performs in the production, “Baritones” is an unofficial response to the “Three Tenors” conversation. The popular and commercially successful operatic singing group exploded in the 1990s, boasting the star power of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. One of many imprints left by the trio was the elevation of the tenor vocal part to cultural primacy, somewhat at the expense of the baritone.
Observation of the recent past’s dearth of strong, new baritone parts is included in the show’s second half. Although the script creditably and diversely attributes the dive to the rise of stadium rock as much as any other influence, there is a pervasive, if amiable, defensiveness. The “Baritones Unbound” have something to prove. For slightly more than two hours, Kudisch, in partnership with fellow sonorous ones Mark Delavan and Nathan Gunn, as well as Musical Director Timothy Splain, takes audiences to school.
The history of the baritone begins with 10th Century variations on the original Gregorian chant and runs through “Miss Saigon” and beyond. I wouldn’t know this if Kudisch, Splain and writing partners Merwin Foard and Jeff Mattsey hadn’t done such painstaking research. Along with a varied assortment of storied musical numbers that run the gamut from Mozart, to Gilbert & Sullivan to Johnny Cash, the narrative unfolds with a delicate and insightful use of multi-media. This is another Felder staple and when I saw the Scenic Design attributed to the producer himself, there was no surprise.
In perusing the production’s press materials, I was amused to discover that among the highlights of Delavan’s and Gunn’s illustrious careers, the pair have been branded with fanboy/fangirl nicknames. “The Voice of God” and “Barihunk,” are the respective flags by which the two men are sometimes known. I can pronounce these pet monikers well-deserved.
Gunn handsomely transitions many of the segments with a deliberate walk center stage that stands in contrast to the more screwball antics of say, Kudisch. I’m a huge fan of screwball antics by the way, as was most of the adoring crowd at the press opening — and we are a difficult lot to impress. When Kudisch held a long, deep note while also maintaining a front split position, we were truly amazed. The man’s a middle-aged hero! Diversity of talent is the most special effect of all.
And Delevan’s “Voice of God” label is earned honestly. His impressive resume is chockablock with the finest and most popular in opera, and the years of training show. Delevan’s gorgeous, booming voice, so otherworldly and effortless, is humanized by self-effacing physical comedy skills.
Magnified by the intimacy of the Royal George’s individual theaters, the three baritones are captivating. Delavan, Gunn and Kudisch enjoy an aqueous chemistry united by individual gifts, niche experience and genuine love of the covered material.
However in lauding the talented and titular cast, it would be remiss to exclude Splain from the curtain call. By the time he steps out from behind the piano and grabs a mic, while Delevan and Kudisch pick up guitars, it’s the Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Theater all over again. Total rock stars.
Fans of music from all eras, who love the satisfying sound of strong, classically trained voices nimble enough to tackle just about anything: find room on your busy holiday schedule for a rousing history lesson. That’s the Hershey Felder brand. And “Baritone’s Unbound” delivers on its promise.
“Baritones Unbound” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Royal George Theatre website.