The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
Singin' and Swingin': The Rat Pack Era! - May 30, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
I always look forward to a performance by the Voices of California (VoCal), because they’re always so darned entertaining. On this Saturday afternoon, Harris Center seemed to be full, and I’ll bet that the evening show had a sell-out crowd, too. My guess is that most of these people were dyed-in-the-wool barbershop fans. They knew what to expect from this show –they got it, and then some.
When the lights went down, the curtain was already drawn, and we could see men in casual dress on the risers and downstage. They were talking to each other, seeming to be killing time. All were dressed differently in various combinations of jackets, ties, sweaters, and hats – all very informal. Eventually, the skit began. A disembodied voice said we were going to be taken back to the ‘60s, “an era that shaped a generation.” The Stage Manager (Robert Lenoil) gave us to understand that the “Rat Pack” – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. – were to be performing live on this stage. Then a phone call came in, picked up by the scatterbrained “Gopher” (Andrew Shumaker) saying that the Rat Pack was stuck in Toledo. What to do? Outside, Gopher has seen someone who looks just like Sinatra and may be able to fill in for him. Turns out he looks nothing like Sinatra, but he gets a brief audition. Meanwhile, there are jokes and clever dialog, and the process is repeated with other “lookalikes.”
Between these “auditions,” though, the chorus performs. The risers have filled, but there’s no symmetry. The singers look like an undisciplined group of guys. Until they start to sing, that is. The gorgeous blend, the energy was there from the first few notes of the “Flying Sinatra Medley,” which included “Come Fly with Me” and “Let’s Fly.”
There was a lot more to the singing than the blend, though. I had dropped in on a VoCal rehearsal a couple of weeks ago when they were working with a new choreographer, Amberlee Prosser. They call her their “Visual Performance Director,” and that’s pretty accurate. She’s made a visual, kinetic masterpiece of them. These men don’t dance, but they certainly move in many ways in many of their songs. And in this song in particular Ms. Prosser gave them a routine that really enhanced the energy and fun of this medley.
Meanwhile Director Gabe Caretto was out front dressed in a white dinner jacket and white spats, looking like he fit into a Rat Pack gathering. Regardless of how he’s dressed, Caretto is the perfect front man for this group – animated, smooth in every movement, and perfectly at ease with a ready smile. It’s hard not to focus on him, but you can scan the chorus, and it doesn’t matter who your eyes rest on: each man is fully engaged, his face – if not his whole body – an expression of what the song is conveying at that moment.
These skits that form the framework of a set of music are always full of fun, so for the next piece, that Dean Martin standard, “That’s Amore,” the chorus vibrated their lips with their fingers to imitate the sound of a mandolin. Then they really hammed it up, adding nonsense lyrics ending with an “ay” sound. And to be sure everyone got the joke, the words were projected above the chorus. And all the while the chorus was acting up and moving together.
“The Way You Look Tonight” was next. Throughout this part of the program the singers were never in a regular formation, so there was always something visually interesting about them, even when standing relatively still. In general , though, there was so much activity, that I was more or less unconscious of the fact that they were singing with such precision. I was unconscious, that is, until this song which was sung with such artistry that the man next to me came out with an involuntary “Yes” of appreciation as it concluded.
It seemed like none of these pieces was delivered without some special embellishment, some extra spice, and “It’s Witchcraft” was no exception. Soon after it started, a magician (Bryce Harris, a chorus member) came out and did the familiar routine with the metallic ball that seems to rest on a silk cloth. It seemed like it lasted a full minute or more, and the routine was perfectly timed with the music.
The scene that accompanied “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” featured a “janitor” (Wayne Grimmer of the Round Midnight quartet) complete with pail and mop, who essentially soloed with the chorus backing him up. He did such a good job singing and acting his part that the audience responded with cheers.
VoCal’s set ended with “That’s Life” performed with the same energy and tight harmony as all songs that had gone before. And as for the skit part of the set, I have to say it was well done: well written, not too corny or distracting, and with tolerably good acting.
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Next on the program were The Newfangled Four, a young quartet who could boast that they were the 2013 International Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Champions and the 2013 Far Western District Quartet Champions. Dressed in 3-piece suites, they seemed a little uncomfortable when then entered the stage. But there was no clumsiness as they started to sing. They began with a piece called “It’s Sand, Man.” I’d never heard it before, but as they sang and moved to the song, I found it hard to imagine how 4 men could be any more in sync with each other, as they navigated through incredibly complex harmonies, rhythms, dynamics – and body language. The rest of their set also consisted of music that was unfamiliar to me: “Love Letters,” “Mistakes,” “Dinah,” “The New Frankie and Johnny,” “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song,” and “Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Jazz?”
By the time they were singing “Love Letters,” I was finding the balance, integration and styling of their sound almost mesmerizing. These words came to me: “How much closer to perfect could their sound possibly be?” The rest of the audience was affected by them as I was. Their songs – none of them in a similar style to any of the others – earned not just applause, but cheers and exclamations of approval. I think it was their youthful energy that struck us most (I doubt any of them are over 30), and when the lights came up for intermission, I wrote in my notes: “I feel so sorry for all of you who missed this show!”
Honestly, I felt sorry for Round Midnight when they took the stage after intermission: The Newfangled Four was a hard act to follow. And indeed, Round Midnight seemed to have a hard time getting started and weren’t as dazzling as their predecessors. As if that weren’t enough, their outfits were very informal and uncoordinated. But as they got into their set, they began to win the audience over in a big way. Here are the songs they sang: “Tonight,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “All My Loving,” “Anytime at All,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Girl,” and “Shout.”
You can see from the list what happened. These were all tunes from the 50s, 60s and 70s – songs that a great part of the audience grew up with. Beyond that, the arrangements got more elaborate and energetic, and it became abundantly clear that this was a top-quality group. By the time they got to “My Girl,” they really cut loose and before long, the audience was clapping in time and even singing along (at the quartet’s urging). And “Shout” simply rocked. People were shooting their arms up on cue, imitating the quartet’s sounds, and generally having fun. The cheers that greeted the end of the set showed how completely Round Midnight had connected with the audience.
When the Voices of California returned to the stage, it looked like a very different chorus. They were all dressed in their standard dark suits, with dark blue shirts and yellow/gold ties. And they were standing in formation on the risers as they performed what has become a signature piece for them, “Harmony.” In this number there was a lot of high-energy movement, especially by the 12 men in the front of the formation who come out toward the audience and follow an elaborate choreography.
This lively production was followed by something completely different, “Down by the Salley Gardens.” I recognized the tune, though not the words, and all I can say is that it was a surpassingly beautiful performance, showing the versatility of this group. While they were singing, I was conscious of the absence of choreography. They were ostensibly standing still on the risers. But as I looked at them as a group, what I saw seemed like a pulsating, living organism. Even when unchoreographed, they are alive as a group, moving together in harmony, as they are singing in harmony.
At the end of this piece, Gabe Coretto spoke for the first time to the audience. He began by complimenting the group behind him, noting that as professionally as they perform, there isn’t a professional musician among them. He went on to explain that the song we had just heard was arranged by a Northern Californian (who would be in tonight’s audience), and that this was the “world premiere” of this arrangement.
Next on the program was “Stars Fell on Alabama.” You’d think I’d begin to take for granted the spirited singing of this group, but as I saw them having so much fun with this piece, I couldn’t help but smile. And the fun was really multiplied in “Nighttime Down in Dixie Land.” There was a lot more choreography in this number – I’m guessing it was the result of the work of their “Visual Performance Director” – and it was very entertaining.
The close of the show was at hand, and there were bows by the actors and quartets. Then The Newfangled Four started to sing “Lean on Me.” Round Midnight took their place to continue the song. Then the chorus came in, with finger snapping and swaying. Pretty soon there was clapping, the audience joined in, and the party was on. The lights in the theater went up and the chorus moved to surround the audience, while members of each quartet sang solo riffs. By the time the last chord sounded, the spirits of both audience and singers were sky-high. As I said earlier, I feel sorry for you that you weren’t there: it was a show to remember.