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Too Hot To Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah returns to the Auditorium Theatre

Featuring musicians and singers from all across Chicago and honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of “Beloved Community”

The New 411 By Raymond Ward

THE 411

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.

“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.

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 a.m. for thousands of students in grades K-12.

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.

There are other events, which include In-School Residencies, Poetry Contest, Correctional Facilities and Youth Center Engagement, as well as the ADMIT ONE.

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