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Too Hot To Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah Celebrates 15 Years in Chicago

The Auditorium Theatre’s signature production “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah” celebrates 15 years in Chicago, and is one of the first performances to kick off the Year of Chicago Music, on January 18 and 19, 2020, in addition to a special Student Matinee performance on January 17. The jazz-gospel twist on George Frideric Handel’s classic Messiah oratorio premiered at the Auditorium in 2006, and has been inspiring and uplifting audiences ever since.

Once on this island
“ONCE ON THIS ISLAND” is the winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and is the sweeping, universal tale of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world, and ready to risk it all for love. Guided by the mighty island gods, Ti Moune sets out on a remarkable journey to reunite with the man who has captured her heart. The groundbreaking vision of two-time Tony Award nominated director Michael Arden (“Spring Awakening” revival) and acclaimed choreographer Camille A. Brown (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live) conjures up “a place where magic is possible and beauty is apparent for all to see!” (The Huffington Post). With a score that bursts with life from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Tony Award-winning songwriters of “Anastasia” and “Ragtime,” “Once On This Island” is a timeless testament to theater’s unlimited possibilities. Playing January 21 through February 2 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. For info,visit (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Too Hot features the powerful soloists Alfreda Burke (soprano), Karen Marie Richardson (alto), and Rodrick Dixon (tenor); legendary Detroit pianist Alvin Waddles; a 100-person choir led by Bill Fraher, director of concert choirs at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago; and a chamber orchestra and jazz band led by Michigan Opera Theatre assistant music director Suzanne Mallare Acton.

Traditionally hosted on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, Too Hot commemorates King’s vision of a “beloved community,” a world in which peace, justice, and love prevail. King frequently referred to Biblical passages that are repeated throughout the Messiah and Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah; his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, uses the passage, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low,” which is also heard in the Too Hot song “Every Valley.” King also remarked on jazz music’s unique ability to bring people together – in his opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, he stated, “Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs love and to be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy … in music, especially in this broad category called jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

“I was here for the first-ever production of Too Hot at the Auditorium, and even then I knew that this performance would keep people coming back to the theatre year after year,” says Rich Regan, Auditorium Theatre CEO. “Too Hot has built a dedicated audience in Chicago, and it is inspiring to see people from all across the city come together to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision and witness the unifying impact that the performing arts can have. We are honored to present this show to Chicago for the 15th year.”

Too Hot was conceived by the composer Marin Alsop, who wanted to create a version of the Messiah that would have people on their feet and clapping along, as she told NPR in 2006. “I could clearly imagine the ‘Hallelujah!’ chorus becoming a gospel number,” she said. “I could hear the recitatives as improvised recital or call-and-response pieces.” Alsop worked with orchestrators Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson to infuse the oratorio with jazz, blues, rock, and gospel. Too Hot premiered in 1993 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Student Matinee

In addition to the performances on January 18 and 19, the Auditorium presents a one-hour Student Matinee performance on Friday, January 17, at 11:00 a.m. for thousands of students in grades K-12.

Master Class

Ahead of the performances, Too Hot soloists Rodrick Dixon and Alfreda Burke, along with conductor Suzanne Mallare Acton, lead a Master Class for the student choir at the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. The choir will perform on- stage with the musicians at the Student Matinee during the “Hallelujah!” chorus.

In-School Residencies

The theatre’s Creative Engagement department oversees in-school Poetry and Music Residencies that tie into the messages of Too Hot, prompting students to consider what a “beloved community” might look and sound like. Students also engage with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and music from Too Hot to observe the ways that music, lyrics, and texts can have an emotional impact, connecting passages from King’s speeches to lyrics from Too Hot.

Correctional Facilities and Youth Center Engagement

Since 2017, the Auditorium has worked with correctional facilities across the state and with the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, to share the messages of Too Hot with residents at these facilities. In 2020, the theatre is partnering with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice to bring five one-hour Poetry Residencies to the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago, joined by residents of the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, IL. Residency participants will also have the opportunity to attend the Student Matinee performance on January 17. The performances will also be live- streamed to residents at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.


Through the ADMIT ONE program, community groups that face barriers to experiencing the performing arts have the opportunity to experience Too Hot at the Auditorium Theatre for free. In addition to receiving tickets to the performance, transportation costs to and from the theatre are covered. Groups also have the option to add on a pre- or post-show workshop, hosted by Creative Engagement staff, to help them engage with the performance. More information about the ADMIT ONE program, the concert, the Teen Arts Program and group tickets can be found by visiting


“Too Hot To Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah” will be performed on Friday, January 17, at 11:00 a.m. for the one-hour Student Matinee. The regular performances are Saturday January 18 at 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, January 19 at 3:00 p.m.

Tickets start at $29 and are available online or by phone at 312.341.2300, or in person at the Auditorium Theatre Box Office, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive.

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