Review: Hot Handel Kicks Off the Holidays at the Auditorium Theatre

I heard that there was some Grinch behavior spreading around Chicago. Even I have mandated that my office shalt not play that one station that starts with the fa-la-la business before Halloween. Friends, I bring news of the perfect antidote! Too Hot to Handel The Jazz-Gospel Messiah at the Auditorium Theatre kicks off the holiday season this year. This wonderful oratorio is usually sung in the Easter season but in their infinite wisdom, the Auditorium Theatre folks have made Too Hot to Handel a new winter holiday tradition. This soul-infused take on a 281-year-old masterpiece from George Handel was reconceived in 1992 by conductor Marin Alsop with orchestration and arranging by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson.

The 2022 return of Too Hot to Handel also brings conductor Suzan Mallare Acton, soprano Alfreda Burke, alto Karen Marie Richardson, and tenor Rodrick Dixon back to Chicago. The chorus is made up of Detroit’s Rackham Symphony Choir and singers from all over Chicago. The exquisite chamber orchestra was enhanced with a jazz ensemble led by Detroit piano master Alvin Waddles. The jazz section has top players including saxophonist Greg Ward who headlined the 2022 Chicago Jazz Festival, Marion Hayden on string bass, and Alan Ayoub on electric guitar–nice touch playing it behind your back!

Alvin Waddles and Jazz Ensemble. Photo by Kristie Kahns.

Handel’s Messiah is taken from sections of the King James Bible covering the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is one of the most well-known pieces of music ever written and performed- especially the Hallelujah chorus at the end. To hear this re-imagining performed by these brilliant singers and musicians will take you to church–the Black church wearing your best hat and tipping shoes. Tipping shoes is a term from my granny who always remarked “Miss Burrell tippin’ in them heels on Easter about to fall over shouting.” To be clear there were some hands raised to heaven when tenor Rodrick Dixon sang. His voice is the best I have heard outside of opera. He holds the notes and creates a pure melisma that is reminiscent of Ronnie Dyson in the original cast of Hair. Dixon is what I call a power tenor who makes the highest notes soar with perfect enunciation and his entire body immersed in this sacred music.

Karen Marie Richardson. Photo by Kristie Khans.

There were some shouts from the audience for the magnificent alto Karen Marie Richardson. I remember her from the Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Duke Ellington’s opera Queenie Pie. Her voice and stage presence are electric. Richardson interprets a song with her body and beatific facial expressions. It sounded like church on a Saturday night. Soprano Alfreda Burke is well-known in Chicago classical circles for her silken and pure-sounding soprano. The highest notes were effortless and layered with gospel inflection.

Alfreda Burke. Photo by Kristie Khans.

I have heard orchestras and bands at the Auditorium Theatre, but I cannot think of one that sounded as beautiful and finely mixed as the chamber orchestra, jazz ensemble, and chorus for Too Hot to Handel. Credit goes to sound designer Daniel Turek for keeping the music balanced. No one was drowned out by the other which I have heard in the best operas and orchestras. Also, lighting designer Matt Miller added a dramatic flourish with the swirling spotlights and beautiful highlighting of each performer.

I highly recommend making Too Hot to Handel–The Jazz-Gospel Messiah a holiday tradition for you and your family. This music has moved audiences for nearly three centuries and it translates so beautifully to the jazz and gospel genres. This might make George Handel’s powdered wig spin but I bet he would be moved to raise his hands to heaven and dance in his tipping shoes. Two Hot to HandelThe Jazz-Gospel Messiah played for two performances only, December 3 and 4 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive.

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene and sometimes beyond? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Kathy D. Hey
Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!