The new musical “Baritones Unbound” at Asolo Repertory Theatre is subtitled “Celebrating the UnCommon Voice of the Common Man,” and it certainly is a celebration.
Like a good college essay, the show sets up a thesis about the personality and vocal quality of the baritone as a sort of friendly everyman, and then backs it all up in an entertaining musical manner.
The show was conceived by Broadway star Marc Kudisch, who worried that baritones are disappearing from the theater and pop music worlds. He stars with opera singers Jeff Mattsey and Mark Delavan in a sort of musical history lesson, but a lot more fun than that might sound.
Under David Dower’s direction, the men create a casual atmosphere to trace baritones back to Gregorian chants, through church music, opera, operetta, Broadway and some of the best-selling pop singers.
The three singers may not reach the dizzying vocal heights of The Three Tenors, but they create their own musical magic and make you hear their selections in new ways. Songs we know as solos become thrilling trios with diverse harmonies that show off the different ranges of the three singers.
There are wonderful multi-voice variations on “Ol’ Man River” from “Show Boat,” “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma!” and a vibrant "Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” with three expectant fathers. Later, they play Tag Team Sondheim, pairing up for duets from “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd.”
Even within the baritone range, each of these singers has a different tone, with Delavan providing the soulful depths (listen to his fierce “Lonely Room” from “Oklahoma!”), Mattsey easing into the higher notes and Kudisch providing comfort from low to high.
No matter your musical tastes, the songs are mostly recognizable, with familiar arias from “The Magic Flute,” “Pagliacci,” “Don Giovanni” and “The Flying Dutchman” (with English subtitles), and touches of Gilbert and Sullivan before getting to Broadway and the pop music charts.
Along the way, they focus on key singers like Antonio Tamburini, the first prominent operatic baritone whose voice, they tell us, was so good, composers had to write for him.
They offer praise to Rodgers and Hammerstein for bringing the baritone to Broadway prominence, and salute crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and superstar Elvis Presley for keeping baritones alive. At one point they tie Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” to the original Italian version, “O Sole Mio”
Alive, at least, until the 1980s, when Broadway composers turned their focus back to tenors. Baritones have been mostly absent from Broadway prominence since then, except in revivals.
The singers are joined by musical director Timothy Splain (also one of the show’s creators with Kudisch, Mattsey and singer Merwin Foard). He is an important fourth character who provides supportive and driving piano accompaniment and a true, welcome surprise at one point.
The show, which got its start last fall at Arts Emerson, where Dower is artistic director of programs, is staged on an attractive set by Alexander V. Nichols, who creates a sort of man cave (complete with leather chair and sofa) and relevant images of the shows and singers highlighted. It’s a fitting setting for all this show has to celebrate.
Conceived by Marc Kudisch, created by Marc Kudisch with Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey and Timothy Splain. Directed by David Dower. Reviewed June 7, Asolo Repertory Theatre. Through June 29. 351-8000; asolorep.org