IN PERFORMANCE

'Songs of a Dream' needs a reality check

Chicagoans know the husband-wife vocal duo of Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon from their exemplary work in "Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah," which plays annually at the Auditorium Theatre.

But on Sunday afternoon Burke and Dixon bowed at the Auditorium's new Katten/Landau Studio, on South Wabash Avenue, with a very different kind of project: an autobiographical cabaret show titled "Songs of a Dream."

Or at least it attempted to be autobiographical. But the inclusion of a few lines about their careers and a smattering of family-album slides do not add up to a portrait of anyone. So perhaps it's best to consider "Songs of a Dream" very much a work in progress.

Take away the flimsy stage patter and sporadic personal photos and you have a song recital that covered many genres, some better than others. At its best, "Songs of a Dream" offered dramatic solos by Dixon, some solid duets for the couple and instrumental accompaniments that ranged from moody to cheesy.

The most effective work came from Dixon, whose plush tenor and persuasive acting dominated this show. In Verdi's "La donna e mobile," from "Rigoletto," Dixon transcended cliche with a brisk tempo and vigorous delivery. In "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," from "Porgy and Bess," Dixon combined enviable warmth of tone with charismatic delivery, drawing comparable response from Burke. And in "Wheels of a Dream," from the musical "Ragtime," Dixon sang with a surging rhythmic power that gave the show its creative high point.

Soprano Burke proved erratic on this occasion, her high register often pinched and a little shrill in Puccini's "Vissi d'arte," from "Tosca," and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," from "Carousel." She needs either to sing these pieces lower in her voice or drop them from her repertoire, for the thinness of her top notes diminished the appeal of her middle and lower registers.

Still, she had her moments, most notably in a medley from Jerome Kern's "Show Boat," in which Burke captured the bounce and breeziness of musical-theater style without sacrificing the polish of her operatic technique.

In the end, though, this assortment of classical, spiritual, Broadway and other fare showed no connective tissue, but for the barely existent script. If Burke and Dixon wish to take listeners on a musical journey through their lives, they'll have to develop a fuller narrative. If they simply wish to display the breadth of their work, they'll have to find some thematic reasons for choosing the selections they sing.

While they're repairing "Songs of a Dream," they also ought to eliminate its instrumental overture, which sounded pompous for a small cabaret piece. Ditto the synthesizer in the band, its fake orchestral effects diminishing the contributions of the other instruments.

Finally, the show's direction proved about as effective as the synthesizer, with Burke and Dixon often portentously positioned at opposite corners of the tiny stage, as if they were about to start a fencing match rather than a musical performance.

The intimate art of cabaret requires its artists to communicate directly, honestly and without pretense. If Burke and Dixon hope to succeed in this realm, they need to figure out the story they're trying to tell – then tell it, through appropriately chosen songs and stage conversation that carries some meaning.

Otherwise, why bother?

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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