“The Lovable Losers finally ended the sports world’s longest winless streak in 2016 with a long-dreamed-but-never-realized-by-anyone-living World Series trophy. And because nothing about being a Cubs fan is ever easy, the team put its global legion of diehards on an epic, seven-game emotional roller coaster ride that ended in joyous shock, disbelief, and exhausted euphoria. The extra bleary kind that only arrives at 1 a.m., after 108 years of waiting ‘til next year.
The real-life story — from Tinkers to Evers to Chance, to 1945, to the Curse of the Billy Goat, through 1969, 1984 and 2003, and until mercifully, 2016 — is one made for soaring opera: the tears of relief shed by fans old and young, for themselves and for the true believers long departed; the parade that welcomed millions of revelers to downtown Chicago on an unseasonably warm November day that seemed heaven-ordained. There’s so much material and possibility for bringing recent history to vivid narrative life.
Instead, the Royal George offers audiences thirsty to relive the impossible, a pedestrian, disappointing trifle. Miracle, with a book by Jason Brett (co-founder of Chicago’s Apollo Theater), and music and lyrics by Jeff Award-winner Michael Mahler (Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story), makes a few stirring emotional connections. But the production ultimately strikes out by engaging in too much Disneyfication and deus ex machina. The result makes for a bland if well-sung production that perversely siphons away the emotional heft of those fateful events in November 2016.”
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.
Several years ago, I had the first opportunity to appreciate the talents of Hershey Felder in his successful one-man show “George Gershwin Alone.” At the time I noted Felder’s gifts for dramatic storytelling, musical diversity and light comedy. They are too considerable to overlook.
However I don’t think it was until this week, during the Midwest press premiere of his latest success, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” that I fully appreciated the artist as historian and archivist, as playwright, as versatile mimic. He owns the work completely. In the press materials distributed with my ticket, there are exactly two individuals credited with every nuance of the production: Director Trevor Hay (who previously collaborated with Felder on the Gershwin piece) and Felder himself. It is extremely rare to encounter a work of art so dependent on the vision and diversity of so few.
And “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is beautiful, biographical art that requires the intimacy of stage to fully deliver on its subtle force. Felder is note perfect (in every sense) as “America’s composer” in a medium he has mastered. He knows how to work an audience familiar with Berlin’s iconic canon, hits such as the rollicking “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Like the masters he inhabits, Felder needs no side man.
Using Berlin’s long 101-year life and career as a natural structure, Felder becomes the man born in 1888 Belarus as Israel Isidore Baline. Fleeing Jewish persecution in the region, Berlin’s family emigrated to New York City in 1903. After the death of his father at the age of 13, Berlin took to the streets, selling newspapers and quite literally, singing for his supper. The young busker was ahead of his time in understanding an audience’s short attention span, and developed a precocious talent for catchy refrains, puns and lightly ribald riffs. A star was born, as is often the historical case, of want, poverty and nothing to lose.
With a 90-minute running time, Felder thoughtfully and carefully covers a number of highlights from a musical career marked by breathtaking proliferation. Of Berlin’s 232 top-ten hits and 25 number one songs, audiences can’t fail to tap their toes to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” or feel the misty emotion of standards like “Always” and “White Christmas.”
On the subject of Christmas Felder, like his source of inspiration, displays a canny sense of marketing and timing. Originally the artist’s “I Found My Horn” was slated to run at the Royal George Theatre during the booking dates occupied by “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” However, sensing a unique and fitting opportunity to feature the work of an immigrant Jew who loved his adopted country and the holiday season, Felder made the programming change in mid-September. “I Found My Horn” will now make its debut next spring.
I commend Felder’s decision. As we took our seats, my companion for the evening remarked that given the recent shortening of days and advent of November, she hoped the performance would inspire the holiday spirit. I can confirm that we both thrilled at the production’s use of audio visual, which put Bing Crosby in the room for a few bars of “White Christmas.” It doesn’t get any more seasonally festive than that. The show’s flexible set also features a beautifully lit tree figuring in a number of the musical performances, as well as the stories of Berlin’s family life and long marriage to second wife Ellin Mackay.
The production’s press materials quote Jerome Kern, another iconic musical composer, as saying, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” The same must be said of Felder. He’s in possession of rare talent for resurrecting the ghosts of our cultural past, breathing new life and relevancy into them, while stamping his own prodigious imprint. Berlin may have been a genius but I doubt he could have pulled off such a hilarious imitation of Ethel Merman, before pivoting to a heartbreaking chronicle of elderly widowerhood. The ability to evoke laughter and tears with equal, rapid effect should never be taken for granted.
It turns out for this critic, Hershey Felder, like the legends who inspire his work, grows more satisfying with each return experience. I’m already bugging my editor to assign me “I Found My Horn.”
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through Dec. 6 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Royal George Theatre website.