The subtitle for “Baritones UnBound,” the new ArtsEmerson show that’s just opened at the Paramount Center Mainstage, is “Celebrating the UnCommon Voice of the Common Man,” but it could as easily be “Tenors, Your Time Is Up.” We’ve had the Three Tenors, the Irish Tenors, the Canadian Tenors, the Ten Tenors, Three Tenors and a Soprano, Three Mo’ Tenors, even Les Contre-Ténors. Now Marc Kudisch, who starred in the Commonwealth Shakespeare/Boston Landmarks Orchestra presentation of “Kiss Me, Kate” at the Hatch Shell back in August, has put together a show for three baritones. That would be a great idea even if it only let us hear all the swell tunes that tenors don’t sing. But Kudisch, Jeff Mattsey, and Ben Davis are so engaging and so enjoyable, “Baritones UnBound” could launch its own series of imitators.
It’s true that, in opera at least, the baritone is more often the tenor’s sidekick (Papageno in “The Magic Flute,” Marcello in “La bohème”) or the villain (Iago in “Otello,” Scarpia in “Tosca”) than he is the hero. And when he is the main man, he’s often a comic figure like Falstaff or Figaro, or a conflicted one like Macbeth or Don Giovanni or Eugene Onegin. Baritones have fared better in musicals: Curley in “Oklahoma!,” Billy Bigelow in “Carousel,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” Beast in “Beauty and the Beast.” And who could be more emblematic of the “Common Man” than the hero of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”?
But Kudisch, whose résumé includes three Tony and four Drama Desk Award nominations, had the notion that even Broadway has been moving away from baritones over the past 30 years, so he devised this showcase, which is directed by David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs. The first half of the 2½-hour evening, which includes a 20-minute intermission, looks back at the history of baritone singing. Accompanied by a redoubtable Timothy Splain at the piano, the trio put their hands together in prayer and sing Gregorian chant. Davis warbles Papageno’s “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” while Kudisch and Mattsey produce bird sounds; Kudisch does Figaro’s great “Largo al factotum” aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”; Mattsey sings “Ah! Per sempre,” from Bellini’s “I puritani.” Mattsey has the roundest, most operatic voice of the three; Davis’s is the most heroic, Kudisch’s the most characterful and flexible.
Once they reach the operetta stage of baritone history, the jackets come off, some ties get undone, and the trio kick up their heels. As Kudisch explains, “We baritones are all still children.” Kudisch turns his necktie into a headband for “I Am a Pirate King,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”; Mattsey and Davis waltz to Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” and attempt the cancan, Davis grabbing his back, Mattsey pretending to pull hamstring. Davis has the last word, a devastatingly sad rendition of Jud’s “Lonely Room” from “Oklahoma!”
After intermission, the curtain rises to reveal what Kudisch calls the trio’s “man cave” — and it is, with a leather sofa and recliner, a coffee table, and a mini-fridge from which they pull, and drink from, bottles with Samuel Adams Boston Lager labels. On the wall behind the sofa are photos of 20th-century baritones. It’s one thing to see there opera legends like Tito Gobbi and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, or Broadway legends like John Raitt and Alfred Drake. It’s another to be reminded, by images of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley, that the baritone voice, full of grit and danger, is the star in pop music.
The highlights in this second act are the trio’s Sinatra-like rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year” and Kudisch’s uncanny Elvis impression on “It’s Now or Never.” But the show has no lowlights. High fives and chest bumps attest that baritones just want to have fun. And after closing with “The Impossible Dream,” the trio salute one more baritone, Neil Diamond, in a singalong, clap-along encore. Wednesday night, the audience made it clear that they too frequent Fenway Park.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.