Soul infused 'Too Hot To Handel' returns for the holiday

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

A holiday tradition that blends a classic oratorio with Detroit musical genres, everything from jazz and gospel to blues and swing, returns to the Detroit Opera House for a single performance this weekend.

Tenor Rod Dixon (right) and Alvin Waddle (pianist) perform with Rackham Choir and Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra instrumentalists during MOT’s annual presentation of "Too Hot To Handel" at the Detroit Opera House.

“Too Hot To Handel,” a jazz-gospel version of Handel’s “Messiah,” brings more than 120 musicians to the stage Saturday, including 85 members of the Rackham Choir, some members of the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, and tenor Rodrick Dixon, formerly of the “Three Mo’ Tenors,” soprano Alfreda Burke, and alto Karen Marie Richardson.

“’Too Hot to Handel’ is a truly unique Detroit experience bringing together the music and soul the city is known for,” says Suzanne Mallare Acton, music director of the show, which marks its 17th season in the Motor City.

With its many musical styles, “Too Hot To Handel” is accessible to everyone. It’s not just classical music, Acton says, but also jazz, gospel, rock and funk. Listen closely and you might also hear some reggae, she notes. The audience is frequently up clapping, dancing and “doing all kinds of stuff,” she says.

“They say music is food for the soul, and in ‘Too Hot To Handel,’ it is a soul-stirring, hand-clapping event that ignites the stage and the audience,” says Acton, who is also director of the Rackham Choir (considered Detroit’s longest continuously existing choir, dating from 1949).

“It engages people of all ages, all faiths and all ethnic groups. ‘Too Hot To Handel’ is uplifting, energetic and is the perfect way to being the holiday celebrations.”

The contemporary, energetic interpretation of Handel’s Messiah premiered at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1993. The late 20th-century version was commissioned by Marin Alsop and orchestrated by Robert Christianson and Gary Anderson. George Frideric Handel composed “Messiah” more than 270 years ago.

Acton was instrumental in bringing “Too Hot To Handel” to Detroit. She was convinced, after seeing a production in New York, that such a lively, joyous version would be received enthusiastically in music-loving Detroit.

Detroit’s version premiered at the Little Rock Baptist Church in March 2001 and was a success from the get-go. “Too Hot To Handel,” with the Rackham Choir and host of other musicians, debuted at the Detroit Opera House the following December. It’s been performed there ever since.

For those who have seen “Too Hot To Handel” before, Acton says there is always something new and fresh every season.

“Every time we perform ‘Too Hot To Handel,’ it is fresh and new,” she says. “Even two nights in a row, the show is different. The performance creates a synergy between the performers on stage and the audience.”

Joining other musicians on stage are the Too Hot Trio, Marion Hayden, Alvin Waddles and Dave Taylor, as well as a full roster of some of Detroit’s best jazz musicians including Chris Collins, Al Ayoub, Fred Hughes, James Simonson, Walter White, Vincent Chandler, and James Hughes. Like at a jazz session, the audience can expect extemporaneous solos from the artists.

Following Detroit’s performance, members of the choir and the production will return to Chicago, where “Too Hot To Handel” will be staged for the 14th time in January, as part of a Martin Luther King celebration. The ensemble performed “Too Hot To Handel” for the first time in Memphis last spring.

“The response has been truly overwhelming,” Acton says. “When we get to the Hallelujah Chorus, you hear a roar from the audience that is indescribable.”

Drew Gale, a baritone who has been with the Rackham Choir since the 2012-2013 season, was among the members at the Memphis debut.

“The audience was very reserved for maybe the first few songs, but after that, they were rocking and rolling just like the audiences in Detroit and Chicago,” he says. “It was really awesome to be able to experience that transition and reaction from a new audience. No matter what city we are in, the crowd loves it and goes wild for the show.”

For both Anton and Gale, who first performed “Too Hot To Handle” in 2012, the highlights of the production are many, but their mutual hope is that the audience kicks back and embraces the music and the energy.

“ I just want them to feel good,” Gale says. “No matter what is going on in life, or the world for that matter, I just want the audience to forget it all for 2 hours and sit and watch this beautiful show and be reminded that we are all the same no matter where we come from, or what we do, or who we love.

“I think in a time where there is so much division, and when mental illness is more so affecting those around us, this show is the perfect thing for us all to recharge, be rejuvenated and be reminded of all the good there is in the world.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.


‘Too Hot To Handel’

7:30 p.m. Sat.

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $33-$73

(313) 237-7464

*Note: Suzanne Mallare Acton and select performers will give a special pre-show talk at the Detroit Opera House beginning at 6:30 p.m., one hour before the performance.