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VOL. 133 | NO. 74 | Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Memphis Show?

‘Too Hot to Handel’ not your grandfather’s ‘Messiah’

By Don Wade

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Twenty-five years after its premier at Lincoln Center, “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah” is coming to The Orpheum Theatre with its 40-piece orchestra, 100-member choir and renowned soloists. Just the name of the show inspires a new way of thinking about what George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” traditionally has been, but also could be.

Or as Brett Batterson, president and CEO of Orpheum Theatre Group, said: “The first thing I would tell everybody is leave your preconceived ideas of the `Messiah’ behind. We call it the `Messiah’ on steroids. It’s lively, it jams, it gets people on their feet.”

Batterson previously presented “Too Hot to Handel” at the Detroit Opera House and Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Both venues have now hosted the show for more than a dozen years. The idea for “Too Hot to Handel” was conceived in 1992 by a music director named Marin Alsop, with arrangements by Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson. The first performance in 1993 at Lincoln Center featured the Concordia Orchestra and Morgan State choir.

Brett Batterson, president and CEO of Orpheum Theatre Group, is anxious to see how the Memphis audience reacts to “Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah.”  (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The Memphis performances – at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, and Sunday at 3 p.m. on April 22 – will feature legendary pianist Alvin Waddles, highly regarded soloists Rodrick Dixon, Alfreda Burke and Karen Marie Richardson, and conductor Suzanne Mallare Acton, who is artistic and music director of the Rackham Choir in Detroit and chorus master of Michigan Opera Theatre.

Providing local flavor will be Leo Davis, minister of worship at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, who will conduct the 100-member choir. The choir also will contain local vocalists. For tickets, go to https://orpheum-memphis.com/.

Batterson says when first introduced to the possibility of putting the show on in Detroit more than 15 years ago, he had no idea what “Too Hot to Handel” was. It didn’t take long for him to be converted.

“I fell in love with it,” he said.

Dixon, 51, has sung in the performance in Detroit and Chicago and believes Memphis is the right place for the show’s unique blend of musical styles, including the jazz, blues and gospel that are in Memphis’ DNA.

“You put it together it’s a great gumbo,” Dixon said.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Messiah,’” Acton told The Detroit News. “It’s really accessible to everyone in the audience. It’s not just classical music – it’s jazz, gospel, rock and funk … it’s a really joyous event.”

Yet, Dixon says it is also “intimate, without having to share your thoughts. It’s the American experience. The choir is very aggressive. You get to clap, smile, cry and have a good time.”

It is also an investment on the production end. Said Batterson: “It’s a lot of work to put on two shows.”

But well worth it, Batterson believes. Churches are historically segregated, which means most people have experienced the traditional “Messiah” in an almost cloistered setting. “Too Hot to Handel” is wide open and the audiences tend to be diverse.

“It brings everybody together in a big celebration of music,” Batterson said.

True to his theater roots, Batterson won’t yet commit to “Too Hot to Handel” becoming an annual program. He wants to see how the audience reacts to it, if the Memphians who come to the Orpheum participate in the performance the way audiences in Detroit and Chicago have.

Dixon believes that Memphians, with their rich music history, will enjoy and appreciate “Too Hot to Handel” from the first note and will come back for more.

“This is a Memphis show,” he said. “It needs to stay.”

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