Playwright: Marc Kudisch, Merwin Foard, Jeff Mattsey and Timothy Splain. At: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-988-9000; www.ticketmaster.com; $60. Runs through: Jan. 3
The traveling theater companies of antiquity typically numbered seven actors: leading man and woman for the raisonneur roles, juvenile and ingenue for the youthful ones, "character" man and woman to play villains, elders or eccentricsand a lone player called the "utility man" capable of stepping into any part as needed. In vocal music, choral harmonies for male voices are divided "tenor" or "bass," but when it comes to solos, it's the baritone who descends smoothly to the bottom of the glissando in "Old Man River" while also sustaining pitch on the fragile "head-voice" final note of "Some Enchanted Evening."
That's rightthe baritone. Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan are here to acquaint us with the history, myth and personality of the men who would find themselves cast as heroes and villains, embodying both the heavenly exaltation associated with pre-pubescent innocence and the underworld darkness suggested by basso-register growls. You wonder why parents fretted over their daughters crushing on Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison? Sure, they were all crooners, whispering intimately to their listenersbut they were baritones, too.
Our evening begins with a brief 1,300-year survey chronicling the evolution of sacred Gregorian chant to secular madrigals, through Bel Canto, Opera Verismo and Viennese Operettaname-checking en route celebrities like Antonio Tamburini ( 1800-1876 ), for whose multi-octave range Bellini and Donizetti wrote some of their best arias, and featuring performances of such highbrow favorites as the "Prologue" from Pagliacci and the "Largo al Factotum" from Il Barbiere de Seville ( known by cartoon buffs as the "Figaro" song ). Before you know it, however, we arrive at the dawn of the American musicalAlfred Drake! John Raitt! Robert Goulet!with a full 30 minutes to spare before intermission.
So don't come expecting a stodgy recital with human bullhorns in penguin suits belting forth leather-lunged fortissimi. Don't assume, either, that physique is always an indication of laryngial prowess ( forgive us, Rick Astley! ). Our friendly hosts acquit themselves capably on Western-style guitars, as well as hoofing ( kind of ) and frequently share lyricsperforming the "Soliloquy" from Carousel as a three-way dialogue between buddies, for exampleto keep the visual picture moving at all times. The patter on preview night was still a bit rough around the edges, but by the time pianist/musical director Timothy Splain ( who's not a baritone ) joined the trio downstage for a Johnny Cash encore, we wouldn't trade them for a whole roomful of chirpy tenors.