The world seems to be moving awfully fast these days. News is old almost instantaneously, “friendship” can mean nothing more than the click of a button, and the medium by which we experience simple joys has shifted from our eyes to our screens, from watching, absorbing, and embracing an experience to capturing, tagging, and sharing it. Acappella, playing now at the New York Music Theater Festival, explores the road back from this rapidly-evolving cyber-immersion, as reflected through the journey of a fictional church and gospel singer turned pop star. That the show tells its story through just human voices, sung and spoken, is not a gimmick but an endorsement for the power of two people sitting in a room talking or 4 people standing on a stage singing, connecting on the most basic of levels. In fact, it is this mode of musical delivery, a cappella music, which most effectively engages the audience during the 90-minute production.
The vocal music comes in three varieties: solo/duet numbers, dialogue-based or supported ensemble numbers, and the distinguishing point in the show, a vocal band serving as the pit orchestra. The first two are standard in musical theater, so it is the vocal band-as-orchestra which stands out. Sometimes, the band is onstage providing context for narrative while backing up a character. Other times, the band serves a traditional pit orchestra function, providing music while the set pieces are changed or while a character enters or exits. On Sunday, the band was consistently strong, with arrangements rooted in soul and gospel, but also in doo wop. Evan Feist, music director and sound designer (more on that in a moment) has crafted simple, effective harmonies from the deep catalog of music produced by The Acappella Company. His arrangements should please traditionalists with full, accessible chords, but also appeal to those seeking something more intricate with moments like the ringing reverse belltones near the end of the first act. One of the emotional highpoints of the show, the R&B-flavored “War With Myself,” is a little bit loose with some of the sparse backing parts but the goal, of allowing the powerful lyrics and soloists to connect without distraction, is well-conceived if a little tenuous on Sunday.
Feist also serves as sound designer, a role which undoubtedly involves the difficult task of managing 14 separate wireless microphones. As I was told in my interview with Executive Producer Greg Cooper and Author Vynnie Meli last week (read it here!), the group was just beginning the sound check process a few days before opening night. Considering that very short adjustment period, the sound was pretty good on Sunday. A soprano in the vocal band was too loud at times, and a few of the middle voices were occasionally muddled, but the lead characters came through clearly, both in dialogue and in music.
So, as the a cappella writer, I’ve covered the basics of the music. Two more quick points on that topic. First, The Acappella Company is usually a Christian music quartet (otherwise known as “Acappella”), and their inspiration clearly derives from a strong faith-based source. As Cooper correctly assured me, however, the show does not feel like a “church” or “praise” show, at least not in any exclusive sense. Harmonies like these are universal, whether the words have religious or secular meaning, and Vynnie Meli’s book manages to broaden the story’s appeal without excising the undertones of faith and hope. Second, the performers in the show are outstanding. Tyler Hardwick, as lead Jeremiah, has a bright, soaring tenor which is neither brittle nor strained. Anthony Chatmon II offers a compelling contrast with his earthy, resolute baritone. The show’s experienced backbone, featured as both a quartet and as comedy relief, includes the immensely talented Broadway veterans Cheryl Freeman and Virginia Ann Woodruff, former Drama Desk nominee Miche Braden, and the outrageous Darryl Jovan Williams. The group’s performance of “Old Time Gospel” is a rollicking good time and one of the musical high points of the show. Simply put, Acappella is an unconditional success on the musical front.
Now, I don’t claim to be a theater critic but I will do my best to articulate why this could work as a long-running staged production, but not without a little revision and polish. Despite Meli’s best efforts to take a collection of pre-existing, loosely related music and craft a moving and engaging story, there is still work to be done (as I’m sure she would agree). To begin with, the story is a little disjointed and even confusing early on. There is not enough time invested in creating the backdrop for Jeremiah’s rise, including his relationship with Simon. The two were, we are later told, “Black-Eyed Peas in a pod” from the time they were young, but the vast majority of this narrative comes after the fact and is largely told through the embittered viewpoint of Simon, who comes across as a bit one-dimensional. There may well be external factors such as show length and source catalog which will make introduction of additional character development a challenge, but it is a challenge worth tackling in order to give the story a better arc and a more nuanced portrayal of both Jeremiah and Simon. This is important, particularly since their relationship depicts the dichotomy at the core of the story, with Jeremiah’s wandering and superficial career taking him further every day from the simple acceptance of self which Simon purportedly claims to have achieved. Despite Simon’s claim, he bristles from the moment he learns Jeremiah is back in town until his final lines walking away from Jeremiah in false triumph, and a little less might go a long way here. Other than that, there are also a few creaky transitions, some attributable to the music and others to the book, which still need to be ironed out.
The story succeeds in the bigger picture with the help of Aunt Leona (Freeman), Mary (Woodruff), and the irascible and hilarious Mrs. Sanders (Braden). The trio, joined occasionally by the charming Mr. Turner (Williams), bring a light and welcome respite from the heavy drama of Jeremiah’s return to town. More importantly, the show works because the music is inspired, the performers passionate, and the journey relatable. The show’s tagline, “A musical about finding your own voice,” is hardly exclusive to the context in which it is portrayed here, and it is one which most audiences will find familiar and accessible.
In our prior interview, Meli conveyed her early hesitation about joining the team for a jukebox musical. However, she has successfully avoided the potential pitfall of creating a disparate, incoherent story and instead honed in on a narrative which comfortably bridges the gap between the faith-based gospel music and a coming-of-age tale with broader social and personal themes. There’s no question in my mind that a fully-developed and broadly appealing musical is inside Acappella if she and the rest of the creative team can polish a few of the rough spots, flesh out the characters a little more, and clean up some awkward transitions. Acappella is better than I expected, but with the right development it can be everything an audience looks for in a night at the theater: a relatable story told with drama, humor, and some terrific music. Here’s to hoping the show continues to find its voice.