The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Voices of California
When You Wish Upon a Song... - May 20, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
Who wouldn’t be looking forward to hearing the Voices of California (VoCal) perform Disney music? That was my feeling when I reached Harris Center at Folsom Lake College on this Saturday afternoon. Before entering the theater, though, I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. I quickly found out that she had never heard VoCal perform. I thought, “What a thrill she’s in for.” But you can have heard them 9 times in the past 5 years (as I have), and it’s still a thrill to see and hear this group of consummate entertainers.
Every VoCal show has a skit that serves as a framework for the chorus’s songs. This time the skit began with a young boy playing a loud video game on the left side of the theater. He was with his Grandpa, who tried to persuade him to give up the video game. (“Real life is way cooler than being online.”) The boy (Joey) argued with Grandpa, who finally persuaded him to join him on a trip to Disneyland.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
With this much of a set-up, the curtain rose on the chorus, all in different kinds of informal dress, and they sang “You Can Fly,” from Peter Pan. Somehow I'm surprised at the beginning of every VoCal concert: from one performance to the next, I forget how dazzling the harmony is. So in the first few seconds of “You Can Fly,” I was dazzled all over again. But this was a show, and the guys in the first row held “clouds” and approached the audience in a choreographed routine. Then as the song continued, several men carried Joey, dressed as Peter Pan, across the stage as if he were flying — twice — to the delight of the audience.
There is a magic in really good barbershop singing like this, especially from such a large group. My theory is that you don’t just hear those finely tuned chords; you feel them in a visceral way. And that’s especially true of the tag or last phrase of a song — something on which barbershoppers work so hard. Those final chords just bloom. And the energy and focus that goes into producing those chords generates about as much excitement as you could ever hope to get from choral singing.
Then there is the magic created by each member of the chorus. Each man is completely committed to his performance: you can see it in their faces and body language. And it’s inspirational, even mesmerizing, for an audience. It's the same for director Gabe Caretto, who directs with fluidity and confidence. And though he isn’t singing while he’s directing, you can see the message of the music in his face.
After the first song, the Joey and Grandpa skit proceeded as they experienced Disneyland together. And I have to say that of all the VoCal skits I’ve seen, this was one of the best: well acted and with a wonderfully clever script that got real laughs (and an occasional tear) from the audience.
“Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book was next, and they had me smiling through the whole number. I have to ask: is it OK for grown men to have this much fun? (You bet it is!) The next piece was one you might not expect to hear in the average medley of Disney tunes: “Cruella de Vil” from 101 Dalmatians. But this song about the evil main character was a perfect vehicle for the acting talents of these guys. Not only did they sell you on how evil this lady was, but as they sang, I picked up every one of those fast-moving, unfamiliar words.
Joey and Grandpa were back on stage with ice cream cones, and it went like this… Joey: “This is great ice cream, Grandpa.” Grandpa: “Yeah, nothing beats a $12 ice cream cone.” That gave one of the best laughs to the Disneyland-savvy audience.
The only memorable song from Disney’s Toy Story was “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” and it was up next. The choreography in this number was especially clever, but all the funny stuff ended in a surprisingly touching moment. As the song drew to a close, the “out front” chorus members, who do most of the choreography, positioned themselves in a “V” facing the audience with several feet between each man. Starting from opposite sides of the stage, Joey and Grandpa wove their way through the “V” until they met at the center as the song came to a close. If there were any grandparents in the audience with dry eyes at this dramatization of the beauty of sharing an experience with their grandchild — I’d like to check their grandparent credentials.
But the absolute highlight of this show — a show that had so many highlights — was the representation of Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade. The theater went dark, and the chorus members pulled out different glowing devices, some with a kinetic display, and some I’d never seen before. But the surprising part — besides the synthesized voiceover that sounded like it had been borrowed directly from Disneyland — were the children — lots of them — frolicking with their own lights on either side of the theater. The recreation of the feeling of the Main Street Electrical Parade was perfect.
Next on the program was a medley of 9 Disney tunes. It began with a brief nod to the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. Then a quartet started singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. Pretty soon, the chorus picked up the song and a giant yellow kite was passed over the heads of the singers. “It’s a Small World” followed, and it featured a bit of dancing from 8 ballerinas. Soon we saw all 12 dancers performing to the next parts of the medley: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” and “Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo” (Fun fact: MS Word knows the spelling of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”)
These dancers were part of Amberlee Prosser's studio, KM Dance Arts in Citrus Heights. Two years ago VoCal hired Prosser to choreograph their shows (including this one), and the nice part of the deal is that it provides access to Prosser's students as child actors and dancers — and they've really enhanced every VoCal show I've seen them in. The only unfortunate thing about their appearance today was that they weren't credited in the program. The Disney medley wrapped up with brief reprises of the Mickey Mouse Club theme and “It’s a Small World.” The cute close to the medley came with these spoken words: “M-i-c, See you real soon, K-e-y.” Then a few guys at stage left prompted the audience to finish. And all the old Mouseketeers didn't hesitate: “Why? Because we like you.”
The chorus then gave a full rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” followed by a reprise of “The Bare Necessities,” and VoCal’s first 30-minute set was over far too soon.
The Voices of California always invite two award-winning quartets to perform at their spring show, and this time it was (1) GQ a quartet of women who were finalists at the Sweet Adelines International Competition in 2016, and (2) Instant Classic, 4 men who were the 2015 International Champions of the Barbershop Harmony Society. (See the attached program for detailed profiles of both groups.) When the curtain closed on the VoCal chorus, I expected to see one of the quartets appear. Instead, both came out, and they sang a jazzy rendition of “Tonight” from West Side Story. It included a bit of light beatboxing and an incidental solo from each of the 8 singers — and it was brilliant.
Then the men withdrew and GQ had the stage to themselves. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d say these women were in their 20s and early 30s, dressed in tight leather pants, black tops and white jackets. Groups like this seldom announce the names of their songs, and I didn’t recognize a single tune in their set. But that isn’t to say that I wasn’t impressed. Besides their great blend, their performance was full of extraordinary vocal effects and harmonies, with lyrics and melodies that seemed to me to be completely fresh.
Instant Classic was next, beginning their set with a medley of “Route 66” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” These men seemed to be in their 30s (maybe pushing 40) and were dressed in dark, 3-piece suits. They gave what turned out to be a very romantic set of music. I believe the title of the second selection was, “Can I Just Spend My Life with You?” And the third was “I Won’t Send Roses.” These songs were touching and personal, and it seemed to me that they were delivered not just with artistry, but with honesty.
The emotion built to a peak when GQ came back on stage to join Instant Classic. The eight of them performed Billy Joel’s hit, “And So It Goes.” After the first few chords, I wrote one word in my notes: “Exquisite.” I had forgotten how beautiful and touching the lyrics to this song were, and this subdued, sensitive performance really made those lyrics live.
After intermission, the quartets were represented by 2 women and 2 men who performed a mixed quartet version of “Skylark.” It was delivered with the great harmony one would expect, but with a discernibly different sound and a deliciously delicate blend. Then GQ regrouped to perform a song that I think was called “Movin’ on Up.” I’m not even sure whether to call the harmonies in this song barbershop, but it was great a cappella.
Next came one of the undeniable highlights of the show. GQ explained that for one of their appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion,” they had written a new arrangement of “How Great Thou Art” (murmurs from the audience) which they wanted to share now. As they began this well-loved hymn, one pure voice after another was added to the harmony. And I must say that I have never heard — and probably never will hear — this song performed so movingly. As they slowed to a gentle ending, they took a breath before the final chord, and a child in the audience let out a cheer. In a way it broke the mood before the final chord could be sung, and everyone laughed off the interruption. But the impression created by the whole performance galvanized half of the audience to their feet. We knew we had witnessed something truly special.
Instant Classic returned to perform “Love You Night and Day.” To me, it was more jazz than barbershop, but it was a convincing demonstration of their championship form. Then they performed a piece called “You Gotta Change Parts.” The gimmick here was that each singer sang one of the other 3 voice parts at some point in the song. It was extraordinarily clever, hilariously funny — and a virtuoso performance.
All 8 quartet members then took the stage to perform one of the less-known numbers from the musical Wicked, “As Long as You’re Mine.” As was everything we had heard before from these 8 singers, this piece was extremely well done, and the audience rewarded both groups with a standing ovation.
The final set from the Voices of California began with “(There’s Gonna Be) A Great Day.” From the energy of that song, they transitioned to a sensitive, restrained version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Then in a complete change of mood, they performed “Since I Don’t Have You,” the 1958 doo-wop hit by the Skyliners. And in keeping with the era of the song, they put on, after loosening ties and jackets — both in the risers and downstage — some cleverly overdone, 1950s rock-group choreography.
The show’s finale brought the two quartets back to join the chorus for a performance of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. The quartets carried most of the melody of the song, but the whole production was something special, an experience that both the singers and the audience will likely remember. And the intense feelings created by that song brought the audience — once more — to its feet in an expression of genuine appreciation for yet another extraordinary show from the Voices of California.