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BWW REVIEW: 'BARITONES' ARE BACK WITH A VENGEANCE AT ARTS/EMERSON IN BOSTON

Conceived by Marc Kudisch; created by Marc Kudisch with Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey and Timothy Splain; music direction, Timothy Splain; director, David Dower; production design, Alexander V. Nichols; assistant director, Shari Malyn; stage manager, Debra A. Acquavella

Performed by Marc Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey, Ben Davis; accompanied by Timothy Splain on piano

Performances and Tickets:

Now through October 20 (no performance Thursday, October 17), ArtsEmerson Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston; tickets priced from $25-$89, available at www.artsemerson.org or by calling 617-824-8400.

Make way, tenors! The baritones are back and they are reclaiming their rightful place as music's "UnCommon Voice of the Common Man." In the delightful world premiere of Baritones UnBound (at ArtsEmerson's Paramount Center Mainstage through October 20), co-creators Marc Kudisch and Jeff Mattsey, along with fellow opera and musical theater star Ben Davis, take their audience on an educational and highly entertaining time-traveling ride from Rossini to Rodgers and Hammerstein, "The Barber of Seville" to the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Gilbert and Sullivan to Sinatra and Sondheim, and "Rigoletto" to Rock 'n' Roll.

If these three gifted baritones did nothing more than sing the 40 or so marvelously sequenced songs they have chosen for this smartly crafted two-act program, it would be enough. But with the added guidance of director and dramaturge David Dower, ArtsEmerson's own director of artistic programs, Baritones UnBound has been shaped into an interesting, even fascinating, journey that charts the development of the baritone voice through opera, musical theater, popular music and more.

Kudisch, Mattsey, Davis and Timothy Splain (on piano) pay homage to the world's most famous baritone roles and singers by performing a parade of non-stop hits through the centuries. Starting in 1791 with the first major baritone role of Papageno in Mozart's "The Magic Flute," our guides demonstrate how each musical period evolved into the next, raising the baritone's stature and making him the hero, anti-hero, and romantic voice of the common man.

The trio begins, appropriately enough, with "Some Enchanted Evening" then moves back in time to European opera and early American musical theater. Kudisch delivers an animated Figaro from "The Barber of Seville," evoking images from "Sweeney Todd" as he absent-mindedly shaves Davis with a hint of malevolent glee. Mattsey follows using his beautiful Bel Canto voice to bring out all the passion and romanticism of Verdi's "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto." Davis then mines the darker, lower baritone registers of Wagner's "Tannhauser" before the trio soars in solo and in harmony from Leoncavallo's tragic "Pagliacci."

Fast forward to the 1870s and 1880s and the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Off come the formal tuxedo jackets and ties and on comes the humor as the trio gets hale and hearty with a medley from "The Pirates of Penzance." G&S naturally segues into American operetta with Mattsey gloriously demonstrating how the baritone began to emerge as a central character in "The Desert Song." A year later, in 1927, the true American musical play is born as Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern integrate story and song for the first time. Invoking the considerable gravitas of Paul Robeson, the trio combines for a goose bump inducing "Ol' Man River" from "Show Boat."

The first act closes with classic Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mattsey and Davis fill the theater with their booming "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from "Oklahoma!" followed by Davis singing a chilling "Lonely Room."

Act II opens in a basement studio that evokes the era of the Rat Pack. The guys drink beer and lounge on sofas while extolling the virtues of bygone baritones. The first glass is raised to the great John Raitt as Kudisch launches into the soliloquy from "Carousel." He, Mattsey and Davis playfully evoke the waiting room at a maternity unit as Kudisch imagines what it will be like to raise a boy - or maybe a girl!

With shirt collars unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, our hosts have now escorted us into he-man territory, where anti-heroes like Billy Bigelow and Emil de Becque reside, and where leading character men like Frederick Graham dominate. In tribute, Davis unleashes his inner macho man with Cole Porter's "Where Is the Life That Late I Led" from "Kiss Me, Kate." Kudisch follows up with "I, Don Quixote" from "Man of La Mancha," accompanying himself on guitar. Showing that even the strongest man can have a gentle heart, though, the trio concludes this golden age of musical theater medley with a soft and sweet "Dulcinea."

Pop crooners and rock 'n' roll kings get their due next. Mattsey does his very best Bing Crosby while Kudisch and Davis sing back-up on "White Christmas." Davis positively channels "Old Blue Eyes" on "Night and Day" and "It Was a Very Good Year," with Mattsey and Kudisch joining in at the ages of 21 and 35. They all serve Sinatra's melancholy well as they harmonize soulfully for the final autumn of their years.

Kudisch elevates the mood considerably when Elvis enters the building, singing "That's All Right, Mama" once again playing guitar. He and Mattsey then demonstrate the stunning Bel Canto lyricism in Elvis's "It's Now or Never" by singing it in juxtaposition to its source material. Here, as they do throughout the program, the baritones open our eyes to the significance of their music across generations and genres.

How sad to realize, then, that the uncommon voice of the common man has been all but silenced since the 1980s. If not for Sondheim and the occasional musical theatre anthem, the baritone voice would be all but lost amid a deluge of rock tenors and falsetto pastiche.

Thank goodness, then, for "It Would Have Been Wonderful" from "A Little Night Music;" "Pretty Women" from "Sweeney Todd;" "Agony" from "Into the Woods;" "Stars" from "LES MISERABLES;" "Make Them Hear You" from "Ragtime;" "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage Aux Folles;" and "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha." And thank goodness that the Baritones UnBound have included all of these marvelous musical numbers in their enchanting evening. Wouldn't a cast recording be wonderful?

A special added thanks to Kudisch, Mattsey, Davis and Splain for the cool Boston-themed encore. It was so good of you to send us out of the theater with such sweet thoughts.

PHOTOS BY PAUL MAROTTA: Marc Kudisch, Ben Davis and Jeff Mattsey; Marc Kudisch and Ben Davis; Ben Davis, Marc Kudisch and Jeff Mattsey; Ben Davis, Marc Kudisch and Jeff Mattsey


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