Too Hot To Handel 15 review- The Auditorium Theatre’s beloved tribute to Martin Luther King. Jr.

Too Hot To Handel: The Jazz Gospel Messiah; choir, orchestra, soloists, conductor
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“Everybody has the blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody wants to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called jazz, there is a steppingstone towards all of these”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive,  played host to the 15h Anniversary program Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, presented in honor of the life and legacy of martyred civil rights leader and cultural hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 18, 2019, in a program that was repeated January 19, preceded by a special student matinee performance on January 17, and numerous creative residencies and events.

Alfreda Burke, soprano

The show kicks off the Year of Chicago Music.  After an introduction by Rich Regan, Auditorium Theatre CEO, Dahlia Ibarra read her sister Jaylene Denill Lopez’s winning submission to the Too Hot to Handel poetry contest. A 5th grade student at Charles R. Henderson Elementary School, Jaylene crafted the poem, entitled Peace Everywhere, in response to a prompt to describe her community.

“I feel calm here
The sun rises beautifully
The day is nice
The wind blows
The air is refreshing
I lay in the grass and look up at the clouds
I make faces with it, animals with it
I feel free, relaxed, and calm
I have energy to do anything
I get up to look and smell the beautiful flowers
There’s peace everywhere.”

The rousing concert that followed was a brilliant mix of jazz, gospel, scat, blues, swing and classical with very strong solo performers, a jazz band, and a spectacular choral group as well as a full symphony orchestra presentation. It has been described as “your grandmother’s choral classic sliced, diced, spiced, swirled, swung, amplified, and totally reinvented.”

Rodrick Dixon, tenor

Conceived by Marin Alsop, arranged by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, the show featured Suzanne Mallare Acton, Artistic and Musical Director of Detroit’s Rackham Symphony Choir conducting the 50-piece Too Hot symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble, and Bill Fraher, Director of Concert Choirs, Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago, directing the 100-member Too Hot choir, which includes guest choristers Rackham Symphony Choir.

This was NOT your great-grandmother’s Messiah! This was the famous work of George Frederick Handel adapted in a very special way- it was a great and glorious expansion of the original baroque oratorio. The large high-definition video screen really expanded one’s perceptions of this “joyous noise” by revealing the blissed-out, utterly rapt, completely involved faces of the vocalists and choir members absolutely singing out with all their hearts, inspired conducting, and the musicians wailing away.

This always much-anticipated event showcased numerous soloists, including pianist Alvin Waddles III, who thrilled the audience with his wonderful riffs leading into The Hallelujah Chorus finale.  The program consisted of 26 pieces of stirring music, following and adapted from the original score, with the sold-out audience swaying rhythmically and clapping along enthusiastically.

Soloists Rodrick Dixon, tenor, his wife, Alfreda Burke, soprano, and Karen Marie Richardson, alto, thrilled the audience with their demonstrations of raw vocal power and emotional intensity, breaking into “scat”, and displaying their Broadway chops.

When asked about their favorite part of the Too Hot experience, Dixon and Burke have poignantly responded with similar points of view. Dixon spoke of the relationship between the choir and the audience, a connection that “is created from the very beginning, and you won’t see anywhere else”. Burke also mentioned the audience, and watching them “rejoice, sing, clap, dance and even weep”.

Karen Marie Richardson, alto

The Messiah was composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and using the version of the Psalms taken from The Book Of Common Prayer. Although it has a structure similar to that of opera, it differs in that it is not presented in dramatic form, there is no direct speech and there are no typically operatic characters. The lyrics, however, are definitely strongly religious in flavor: it has been succinctly called “an extended reflection on Christ as Messiah”.

The text begins with Prophecies, moves through the Annunciation to the shepherds, dwells on the Passion, covers the Resurrection of the dead and ends with Christ’s Ascension to glory. Eventually the piece became one of the most frequently performed choral works in Western music, often adapted for performance on a much grander scale than Handel intended.

It is now generally agreed by scholars that there is not one definitive version of the masterpiece, but certainly the version-and vision- given at The Auditorium is an extremely successful and spirited example of grafting an entirely new concept of liturgical expression onto an existing form.

It is that connection, a bond with the community beyond just the audience that is fostered by the Auditorium, which is committed to presenting the finest in international, cultural, community-based and educational programming in Chicago. Indeed, in conjunction with the Too Hot To Handel performances, the Auditorium’s Department of Creative Engagement sponsored many programs that engaged Chicago students, community organizations, and those incarcerated in penal institutions in the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, and further celebrated the power of music to inspire.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education”. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Too Hot audience at The Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Kudos to the production staff including co-arrangers and orchestrators Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson, stage manager Ellen Peck; production coordinator Stephen Sell; lighting designer, Pat Donahue, Jr. and musical contractor Sylvia de la Cerna.

For information and tickets to all the great programming at The Auditorium Theatre,  go to

All photos by Kristie Kahns. 


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