By Nicole Rhoden
For Karen Marie Richardson, vocalist and on – and off – Broadway performer, music has always been a family affair. Richardson’s father is a singer, and her cousin Johnny Funches is one of the original members of the R&B group The Mighty Dells.
“Lots of trips we would take throughout the states, Dad would take out an album called Jazz at the Pawn Shop and play it while my brother and I were in the back seat of the car,” recalls Richardson. “I would eventually catch myself mimicking sounds that I was hearing, learning to harmonize from my dad.”
Since 2009, Richardson has been the alto soloist in Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, returning to the Auditorium Theatre for its 8th annual production January 19 – 20. Too Hot to Handel reinterprets George Frideric Handel’s Messiah with a jazzy, soulful flair. Richardson will join renowned vocalists Rodrick Dixon, Alfreda Burke and over 200 other talented singers and musicians, all under the direction of Suzanne Mallare Acton and Bill Fraher.
Richardson compares the show to the Sermon on the Mount — the classical hymns are translated to poignant gospel, filling the theater with an air of exaltation. “Ideally I like to let the pieces take over every aspect of my body,” she explains. “If I don’t remember my performance, that means I’ve really given myself to the project, that I’m really communicating with people on a spiritual level that’s beyond me.”
Enriched by her musical upbringing, Richardson, a Bloomingdale Chicago native, calls her pursuit of a singing career “a smooth road, but not seamless.”
In 2001, as a freshman at Millikin University, she was elated to land a coveted role in the school musical. But Richardson soon faced a rude awakening when doctors discovered a cyst on the side of her vocal cords. While the cyst was benign, taking a break from singing during its removal proved taxing. “Music and singing had been my life for a long time, so even the three days I wasn’t allowed to speak after the surgery was grueling,” said Richardson. “I would hear songs and be so worked up because I wasn’t able to sing.”
Luckily, Richardson made a swift recovery and, with caution, was even able to retain her role in the school play. Richardson calls the opportunity to perform with Too Hot to Handel “a blessing,” displaying the same humility that helped her earn the role in the first place.
In 2009, after learning of the imminent closing of her show The Mistress Cycle, the vocalist accepted a fundraiser gig for the Auditorium Theatre turned down by her fellow cast members. At the event, she unknowingly sat across from Rodrick Dixon, who later complimented her singing voice. “I freaked out,” laughs Richardson. The event also led to a
connection with Auditorium Theatre Executive Director Brett Batterson, who eventually invited her to audition for Too Hot to Handel.
“At the audition, I had a lump in my throat the size of a frog,” recalls Richardson. “I had left
my repertoire book in my car. I thought for certain that I was done for.”
But soon she received a call from Batterson — the alto soloist role was hers.