The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
Cool Yule - December 2, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
(This review sponsored by Clark Abrahamson.)
It may have been chilly and windy outside Harris Center, but on Stage 1 inside, it was really winter. The men of the Voices of California (VoCal) entered the risers dressed in dark trousers and white shirts — and scarves wrapped around their necks. A 6-foot snowman slipped in at stage left and surprisingly heavy snow descended from the fly tower above the stage. The chorus broke into “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and as they were singing, 7 or 8 children began frolicking downstage. Dressed in winter coats, they pretended to be playing in the snow and occasionally threw Styrofoam snowballs at each other. The kids were the KM Dance Arts Upstage Dancers, no doubt students of Amberlee Prosser, VoCal's regular “Visual Performance Director.”
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
When the song concluded, the kids left the stage, except one little girl who interacted with the now talking snowman, eventually performing a brief dance with him. The skit was briefer than others I've seen in VoCal shows, but it lasted long enough to show what a good actress the little girl was, as she and one other young actress tugged at the heart of the audience with a dialog about friendship.
Meanwhile the chorus was giving us more winter music — “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Let It Snow” — full of the sweet barbershop harmonies that the audience came to hear — and enhanced with the downstage choreography that adds an extra bit of fun to so many VoCal numbers. And in all these songs, we got what I most love about the Voices of California: personality. Every member projects it. There are no dead faces and stiff bodies — everyone is full of life and the joy of performing.
This first set was over far too soon, and it was time for the first group of guest performers. They were the High Voltage troupe from El Dorado Musical Theatre: 22 young people, all in high school or the first year or so of college. I know this group well, having attended 19 of their shows over the past 5 years. They are talented singers, dancers and actors, professionally trained and directed, and I was excited to think that many of my fellow audience members would be seeing them for the first time. They didn't disappoint.
The High Voltage set included 7 numbers. I dare say it was longer than originally planned because another guest chorus had to withdraw, leaving inadequate time to find a replacement. That was OK with me and, I’m sure, everyone else in the theater. They first performed “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — maybe a little lack of coordination, since it was VoCal's opening number? Then there was the humorous “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John.” Next up was a cute rendition of “Sparklejollytwinklejingley" followed by the more contemplative “That's Christmas to Me,” and the elegant “Christmas Waltz.”
The format of the High Voltage performance lacked many elements that make their shows dazzling to someone like me. This afternoon the girls were in red dresses and the boys all in black with red ties. But in their own shows there is a costume change with every number. They also have creative projections to set a scene, plus props — all of which were missing this afternoon.
But in a way none of that mattered because the choreography of each of this group's numbers was brilliant: creative, visually arresting, and high-energy. And that energy went over the top with “The Christmas Can-Can,” made famous by the a cappella group, Straight No Chaser. This piece was performed a cappella and included even more elaborate choreography than we had seen before, with the kids cutting loose in every way imaginable. It was hilarious. They concluded their set with a charming rendition of “God Bless Us Everyone.”
Ordinarily a performer wouldn't want to follow an act like High Voltage, but VoCal's go-to quartet, Artistic License, is always ready to take things up a notch. They began with an innovative arrangement of “Silver Bells” that showcased their exquisite blend. Then came “I'll Be Home for Christmas.” As I listened, the thought hit me that they have lost none of the award-winning sound that first impressed me many years ago.
“We Three Kings” felt like something new for them, with bass Jason Dyer beatboxing, an effect I don't remember hearing them use before. It was perfect for this jazzy version of the classic Christmas carol, and the performance highlighted the showmanship that this group brings to every number they perform.
Next was “Joseph's Lullaby,” an emotion-laden song, featuring an intensely sensitive performance by baritone Gabe Caretto. The last number in Artistic License's set was a medley of Santa songs that gave solo opportunities to the other members, Rich Brunner (lead) and Todd Kidder (tenor). As they sang, I thought again of the many times I've heard them over the years. It struck me how lucky we are in Sacramento to have Artistic License here. What they give us is about as good as barbershop quartet singing gets.
After intermission we were treated to another group of guest performers: the American River College Jazz Singers. These 8 young performers are award-winners in their own right, and though I don't have a feel for what makes quality in vocal jazz, I have to say they were very impressive. For one thing, each of them had a strong, clear voice. That was evident from the frequent solos in their performance. Beyond that, they were all entertainers. You could see that from their stage presence and body language, and it was clear that they were doing more than singing notes: they were singing with feeling. And speaking of notes, one couldn't help but be impressed by the extraordinary complexity of the rhythms and harmonies they delivered. I'd venture to call it vocal gymnastics. My thought as I was listening to one especially complex scat routine was: “No one can doubt that this is a demonstration of both talent and artistry.”
Not surprisingly, I wasn't familiar with any of the songs in their 4-piece set — except “Caravan.” Neither, I dare say, was the majority of the audience. I have to add that those who attended this show were probably all fans of barbershop harmony, and though variety in a show like this is good, this was probably the wrong audience for an accomplished vocal jazz ensemble.
When the Voices of California returned to the stage, they were dressed in dark suits and candy-striped ties. They began with the bouncy “Welcome Christmas” (from How the Grinch Stole Christmas!). Their next song, “Carol of the Bells,” is a traditional song that doesn't usually get laughs. But it did this afternoon when VoCal added “choralography” that had the members of a voice part lean in one direction in unison as their part was added to the melody. It was a simple effect, but the audience loved it.
What followed was a well-crafted performance of a familiar, somehow-comforting piece: “The Christmas Song.” As I watched Gabe Caretto direct, I had a thought that has occurred to me so many times: he is the perfect guy to have out front. He's quick-witted and relates comfortably to the audience. And he has air of confidence and relaxed control as he glides around the stage. His directing is itself a performance.
“Sing We Now of Christmas” featured 4 good solos, backed by VoCal’s consistently excellent harmony. Then “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” brought a jolt of energy to the chorus as they (especially the 8 guys out front) added acting (“acting up”?) to their performance. And the audience loved seeing the chorus let their hair down. Then it began to snow again, and we were treated to the new Christmas classic, “Believe” from the movie, Polar Express. It was an outstanding arrangement, but more than that, it was beautifully sung.
The finale of the concert was quite a production. Serena Chao (a member of the ARC Vocal Jazz Ensemble) came out to sing the first verse of “Silent Night.” What was especially notable about it was that she sang it in German. And with guitar accompaniment by Artistic License tenor Todd Kidder, it was an authentic presentation of the first time this well-loved carol was performed in a small town in Austria in 1818. Then the theater went dark and the chorus sang the second verse of “Silent Night” in English. Artistic License then came on-stage to sing a third verse with a counter-melody, plus some harmonic embellishment. The chorus then came back in with the first verse, with Artistic License singing the counter-melody. As this concluded, the lights of the theater came up, and we could see the two groups of young guest performers in the aisles surrounding the audience, singing along. It all concluded in an emotional climax with Artistic License singing, by themselves, the final line, “Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.” With that, the audience was on their feet, as they are at every Voices of California concert, and though it was only December 2, we were all ready for Christmas.