VOCA PEOPLE: Inter-galactic Acas (Review)

According to the story, the Voca People are a group of extra-terrestrials whose spaceship crashed here on earth (in this case, in upstate New York) and is now stuck without sufficient fuel to return home. The only thing which will recharge the ship, we are told, is musical energy.

Sound weird or quirky? Perhaps, but it serves as an effective vehicle for what this show, Voca People (now playing 6 days a week in Manhattan), really offers: a performance of entirely a cappella music, featuring styles ranging from classical to movie themes to rock and pop music, interwoven with a terrific mix of choreography, humor, and audience participation.

When the show, seen last week at the Westside Theater (only a few blocks from Broadway) begins, the Voca People wander onto the stage chattering in an unintelligible language while their spaceship sits off to the side. They quickly establish the story by convincing an audience member in the first row to stand up and raise his hand, which an all-white clad performer grasps.

Through this contact, during which the entire cast shakes and shudders, they apparently learn our language (English) and much about American culture.

The group of 8 performers onstage consists of 3 male vocal parts: the bass, baritone, and tenor; 3 female parts: the alto, mezzo, and soprano; 1 vocal percussionist and 1 beatboxer (though these two cross over onto each other’s turf several times throughout the show). The group begins by working through the evolution of music, a process which includes both Mozart and Michael Jackson, then performs a medley of movie themes, before the central thread of the show becomes clear: the group must garner audience response and participation which will help produce the “energy” necessary to power their ship.

As an a cappella junkie, I attended this show with an interest and focus on the music rather than the storyline. In other words, I entered the theater expecting to watch an a cappella concert with a superficial story loosely designed to tie together a lot of music .  Considering this mindset, the quirky story and the frequent use of audience participation were a bit jarring to me initially, which says more about me than about the show itself.  As a result, it took some time for me to relax and absorb the entire experience. Once I did, however, I was thoroughly entertained. The show features no real “set” or props to speak of, other than the spaceship which sits on the side of the stage and progressively lights up as the musical energy is harnessed (read: as the show progresses). The show also features little scripted dialogue, other than occasional explanations or instructions from the psuedo-narrator, the beatboxer.  As a result, the performers are forced to keep the audience entertained with a constant flow of singing, dancing, facial expressions, and gibberish.  To this end, they did a terrific job. The use of frequent audience interaction was also a very effective tool. At various points, the performers exited the stage and “read”  or translated audience members’ thoughts (through sounds or music), used audience members as props for instruments that the performers mimicked vocally (my friend Pat, sitting in an aisle seat, had his arm used as a prop for a pretty impressive vocal guitar), and even offered a fresh take on the standard a cappella fare of choosing a woman from the audience to serenade. The resulting jealousy by the three female Voca’s, leading them to pull three male audience members up onstage and perform a sketch far more entertaining than a standard ballad, resulted in some of the funniest moments of the show.  I would say the audience participation component, which clearly changes based on the personalities of the audience members selected, made up 15 or 20 minutes of the show and generated the vast majority of the comedic moments. The choreography throughout the show was also simple yet effective.

Since I was listening with a critical ear as a former a cappella singer and current a cappella blogger, I felt a need to pay close attention to the quality of the arrangements and the vocal performances themselves. To begin with, the vocal percussion and beatboxing were stellar, with a steady drive and some outstanding scratches that really impressed me. Behind them, the singers were equally talented. Their voices held up well across a wide range of music, and the women in particular offered some outstanding and passionate solos. The bass was very solid, resonant, and his pitch never faltered, a fact which allowed the other parts to thrive on a potpourri of vocal imitations, including guitars, horns, and strings while avoiding the intonation problems which can result from such mimicry. Though it was likely through no fault of the performers, the percussion and soprano mics were a bit loud in the mix, leaving the middle parts  muddled at times in this particular performance. I think this was harmful to the quality of the overall blend, but again, I suspect that, aside from a few moments of genuine pitch struggles, the problem was frequently happening at the mixing board and not onstage. Any moments where pitch was a concern in those middle parts can be attributed to, and expected in, an 80-minute show with singing, dancing, and general entertaining.

As with any music involving medleys, the transitions are critical to the effectiveness and success of the performance. Impressively, the transitions here were well-executed and essentially seamless. The songs included within the medleys were generally well-known and identifiable to the audience, though there were a few numbers which I (and those around me) did not recognize.  Nevertheless, the song selection was perfectly adequate and offered what would certainly be more than a few staples from any karaoke bar or radio playlist from the past 30 years.

This show was funny– at times shockingly so– and entertaining for a solid hour and a half, and it will surely appeal to those young and old, musician and non-musician alike.

In a sense, those of us in the a cappella performing community are all “voca people,” trying our best to use just voices, stage presence, and occasionally humor to entertain and provoke a response from the audience. The Voca People conclude towards the end of the show that “music is life, life is music,” and this is surely a foundational belief that drives the a cappella community.

If you are able to catch the Voca People before they blast off for another city, I highly recommend it. They are, after all, “our” people. Or “people.”

Voca People (New York)

Westside Theatre

407 W.43rd St., New York

http://vocapeoplenyc.com/

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