Editor’s Note: If you missed the opportunity to see this performance in 2017, know that you will get another chance. This beloved Chicago tradition in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King is yearly. Look for a re-post of this review next holiday season to remind you to get your tickets.
Auditorium Theatre Hosts A Beloved Chicago Tradition
Now in its 12th year in Chicago, Too Hot to Handel is Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson's breathtaking jazz, blues and gospel arrangement of Handel's oratorio Messiah. Handel's original composition is typically performed in churches and concert halls around Christmas time, but Too Hot performances take place, in what has become a beloved Chicago tradition, every year in January to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Headed by an impressive trio of soloists and with a 100 strong choir backing them up, Too Hot will have you standing up, clapping and swaying and hollering by the end of the evening. Soprano Alfreda Burke's voice has the power of sending shivers running down your spine. Her stage and real-life partner, tenor Rodrick Dixon, has an equally charismatic stage persona and his rendition of Behold the Lamb of God, sung in rich, velvety tones, was one of his most memorable moments. Their voices joined alto Karen Marie Richardson and
the chorus in an arresting version of Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs. They all came together again for the knock-out Hallelujah with which the night came to a riotous and happy close.
In addition to a full orchestra expertly conducted by Suzanne Mallare Acton, Too Hot also boasts a six member Jazz Band, full of energy and chutzpah. At one point, electric guitarist Alan Ayoub played his instrument behind his head drawing hoots and hollers of admiration. Virtuoso pianist Alvin Waddles effortlessly transitioned not only between songs, but between musical idioms within a song, regaling the audience with an unexpected tapestry of styles and pop music references (the chords of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah were both a poignant tribute to the departed Cohen and a spot on musical pun).
A screen showing close ups of the featured musicians, chorus and conductor, brought intimacy in what otherwise was an epic and celebratory festival of music, spirituality and community.
Bringing Together the Larger Community
One of the most significant aspects of Too Hot to Handel is its desire to reach out beyond the walls of the Auditorium Theatre. The night started with a high schooler reading a poem which had won first place in a competition organized under the auspices of the event.
And for the first time, the Auditorium Theatre is partnering with the Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church's Friends of Prison Fellowship to live-stream the January 15 performance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary (a maximum-security prison located in Angola, LA), as well as the Lake County Adult Corrections Facility in Waukegan,
IL and the Sheridan Correctional Center in Sheridan, IL. Footage from the facilities will be streamed back to the Auditorium Theatre audience during the live performance on Sunday.
At a time of increasing polarization, tension and mistrust in American society, endeavors like Too Hot To Handel become essential to heal our wounds and reaffirm the shared values of our common humanity.
January 14 and 15
Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 3:00 pm
50 E Congress Pkwy
Photo: Paul Natkin
About the Author:
Hector F. Pascual is a writer, actor and director from Spain based in Chicago. He has studied non-Western theater traditions in China, Japan and Indonesia, and in 2008 received a Watson Fellowship to research community-based performance in Latin America. He has a BA in Theater from Macalester College and an MA in Modern English Literature form University College London. He has been an ensemble member of Theatre Y since 2015.