The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
The Great American Cookbook - May 11, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
The Crest Theater has been transformed to “Chez VoCal,” and the first thing you notice is men dressed as waiters, with copies of the program folded over their bent forearms, as if the programs were towels to dust off a chair or wipe up a spill. Then you pass the maître d’ at his podium. You sit down and notice a kitchen set up on the stage, and you realize these guys are serious about pursuing the theme of “The Great American Cookbook.”
The show started with “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and the quality of singing – blend, tone, energy – was top-notch from the start. But this was a show, not a concert, and the gags came thick and fast. Each of the 70+ singers was dressed like a chef (white outfits, chef hats, and some kind of cooking-related prop, as I recall), and the stage itself was full of kitchen and restaurant-themed set pieces.
(Click here to open the program in a separate window, though individual songs are not listed in the program.)
This was an extended skit in which a restaurant critic was visiting Chez VoCal. The maître d’ had dialogs with the critic and the restaurant “staff” that provided continuity, as the chorus sang one song after another: Recipe for Makin’ Love, Puttin’ on the Ritz, As Long as We’re Cookin’, If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie), Roll Out the Barrel, and Food Glorious Food. Actually, I’m not sure I got all the song names right. In fact, some of them were not really what I just listed. For example, as chorus members delivered hors-d’oeuvres to the critic, they were singing “Put It on a Ritz,” and there were big props to show what they were putting on the critic’s Ritz crackers. Then four Japanese-looking chefs came forward to act out “If You Knew Sushi (Like I Know Sushi).” And “Roll Out the Barrel” became “Roll Out the Sausage (and Beer),” with sausage links that ran the length of the chorus. Somewhere in there singers out front were tossing pizza dough in the air. It was an eyeful from start to finish, madcap action to say the least – and wildly entertaining. Obviously, they took great liberties with the words of the songs they sang, and what I was able to pick up was very clever. I missed a lot though. The Crest Theater is a classy venue, and the way the seats are tiered, the lines of sight are very good. But the articulation of a 70-member chorus was lost a bit in the back half of the theater.
Closing out the first half of the show was Artistic License, an excellent local quartet. I think I got down all the songs they sang: It’s a Grand Night for Singing, Old Cape Cod, What Chance Have I for Love?, Goodnight My Angel, Sixteen Tons, a medley of old gospel tunes (including "How Great Thou Art"), and a song that combined “They All Laughed” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” To call their performance brilliant would be an understatement. Their vitality, versatility, and artful singing were off the charts. Each voice was strong and solo quality, and though the bass dominated a bit at the start, soon their balance seemed to me to be right on. And I have to say that “Goodnight My Angel” was the prettiest performance from a barbershop quartet that I have ever heard. Not surprisingly, the audience rewarded them with an immediate standing ovation.
The second half of the show opened with Four Voices, the 2002 International Quartet Champions. They had been inactive for an extended period and only reunited fairly recently, and I’m sorry to say that it showed. For one thing, their luggage must have been lost on the way to Sacramento, because their outfits weren’t matched and the lead’s dress was simply shabby. For their set, they sang: the Muppet Show Theme Song, There’s Gonna Be a Great Day, Lazy Bones, Lordy How I Love the South, Don’t Worry Be Happy, and It Is Well with My Soul. Of course, the singing was good, but it was far from championship quality, and the previous Artistic License performance made them look like also-rans by comparison.
The last section of the program had the Voices of California chorus on the risers delivering their songs without the costumes, props and gags of their opening set. There was still showmanship, of course. Singing “On With the Show,” there was swaying and arm movements. And I think it was in “Basin St. Blues” that they had 10 men out front with director Gabe Caretto behind them for much of the number. I should add that Caretto (a member of Artistic License, by the way) is always moving, always projecting personality: he seems like the spark plug for this engine of 70 men, and I’m sure he’s a key factor in their rapid progress since their founding in 2010. One evidence of that progress is the fact that, for the first time in the 75-year history of the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly SPEBSQSA), a chorus from Sacramento has qualified to compete at the international level (the 2013 International Convention coming up June 30-July 7 in Toronto).
As I recall, it was after mentioning this accomplishment that the chorus sang “When You Wish Upon a Star,” followed by “No No Nora.” Throughout this section of the program – though less frenetic than their appearance in the first half, and less dazzlingly entertaining – I was aware of their quality, well-crafted sound. And on top of that, each man was alive, expressive and engaged: you could feel the positive energy coming from the stage.
For a finale, both quartets joined the chorus on stage to sing the gospel song, “All Rise.” I couldn’t tell whether they were singing all the traditional lyrics, but it felt like a religious note for closing the concert, and many in the audience picked up on this, stood up, and extended out their arms. For me, this closing seemed out of character with the rest of the show, and left me feeling a bit disaffected. As I left the theater, though, there was no question that I’d heard an outstanding chorus and an outstanding quartet give outstanding performances.