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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Baritones Unbound: Celebrating the
Uncommon Voice of the Common Man

ArtsEmerson


Ben Davis, Marc Kudisch and Jeff Mattsey
In a nutshell, the baritone voice is defined as the range between tenor and bass. However, to settle for that vanilla description would be like accepting the notion that Shakespeare was just a playwright. Baritone happens to be my favorite among the male voice roles, but personal preference aside, my ability to articulate what is special about the register pales next to the comprehensive and entertaining musical tour conceived and crafted by three-time Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch and friends. Baritones Unbound: Celebrating the Uncommon Voice of the Common Man, a work developed at ArtsEmerson with Director of Artistic Programs David Dower, is having its world premiere at the Paramount Center Mainstage, performed by Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey (Co-Creator) and Ben Davis. Co-Creator Timothy Splain is the Music Director, pianist and all-around versatile performer sharing the stage with the three outstanding baritones.

The journey begins solemnly in 750 A.D. with monophonic Gregorian chanting, before the advent of harmony in 1250 A.D., and fast forwards to the popular commedia dell'arte which brought music and theater out of the churches and into the streets. Kudisch, Mattsey and Davis take turns telling the history and vocally demonstrating the musical styles. They display their consummate opera skills on selections from Mozart's The Magic Flute, Rossini's "Figaro" from The Barber of Seville (Kudisch pantomimes the actions of the title character with flair), and pieces by Verdi and Wagner, explaining that the latter two composers explored the baritone's high range and lower depths, respectively. English translations of the Italian and German lyrics are projected upstage on towering triangular tubing which features ever-changing lighting colors.

The quality of the artists' voices—unamplified, by the way—and Splain's nuanced massaging of the keyboard make the classical portion of the program entertaining, as well as enlightening, but it is somewhat weighed down by having to cover a lot of history in a short time. Things pick up speed with the arrival of Gilbert and Sullivan on the scene in the late 1800s, when the Brits bring their beloved operettas H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance to America. Kudisch and Davis have fun trading the mantle back and forth in "I Am the Pirate King," which includes eye patches and swagger galore.

The baritone voice blossomed and emerged as the sound of the common man in American musical theater, superbly illustrated in "Ol' Man River" from 1927's Show Boat (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II) and 1943's Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration. R & H actually used the baritone range for both the romantic lead and the villain, but Mattsey's hopeful "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" followed by Davis' dark rendition of "Lonely Room" clearly drives home the contrast between the two characters, creating a dramatic end to the first half of the show.

After intermission, the curtain rises on a totally different set and tone. Gone are the tuxedo jackets and ties, and three high-backed stools are replaced by a leather couch, a Barcalounger, and a mini-fridge stocked with beers, comprising a pseudo man cave. Behind the couch is a wall plastered with Broadway musical theater broadsides and glossy photos of famous baritones, among them John Raitt, Alfred Drake, Bing Crosby, Jerry Orbach and Robert Goulet. They set up a standing microphone to emulate performing on radio, illuminating the importance of the baritone in popular music, as well as in musical theater. Mattsey does a pretty good Crosby on "White Christmas" and Davis impresses on "Night and Day" during a Sinatra segment. Kudisch channels another king when he breaks out a guitar and introduces Elvis Presley's contributions to the baritone canon with "That's Alright, Mama" and "It's Now or Never."

Quoting Kudisch, "The only thing better than two baritones singing Sondheim is three baritones singing Sondheim," and it is especially true when it is these three baritones. Playing "tag team Sondheim," they do songs from A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and a hilarious take on "Agony" from Into the Woods. A capella snippets of more show tunes follow as the baritones challenge each other to come up with a song from a given year, up until 1979. It was at that point that baritone solos became few and far between, and after having the house lights turned up, Kudisch queries the audience to come up with exceptions.

Clearly, the ArtsEmerson audience is well-versed in musical theater, coming up with a handful of songs from the last three decades which are already planned for the program. In turn, three "wow"-worthy performances ensue as Mattsey shows Russell Crowe how "Stars" from Les MisÚrables should be sung, Davis infuses "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime with intense emotion, and Kudisch connects with "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles. Fittingly, they join in perfect harmony to conclude with "The Impossible Dream" (Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion) from Man of LaMancha, hoping for the resurgence of the baritone voice.

Baritones Unbound unexpectedly offers so much more than a trio of accomplished singers plowing through about thirty songs. Under Dower's direction, the show appears highly structured in the first act, while moving at a looser, more relaxed pace in the second half. As seriously as they take their allegiance to the baritone voice, Kudisch, Mattsey and Davis don't take themselves too seriously and look like they're having a rollicking good time throughout the celebration. Their vocal range may be the voice of the common man, but there is nothing common about their three extraordinary voices and this enchanted evening.

Baritones Unbound: Celebrating the Uncommon Voice of the Common Man, performances through October 20 by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org. Conceived by Marc Kudisch; Created by Marc Kudisch with Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey and Timothy Splain; Performed by Marc Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey, Ben Davis, accompanied by Timothy Splain on piano; Music Direction, Timothy Splain; Directed by David Dower; Production Design, Alexander V. Nichols; Assistant Director, Shari Malyn; Stage Manager, Debra A. Acquavella


Photo: Paul Marotta



- Nancy Grossman



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