Musica=Energia: An Out-of-this-World Performance
Recently, I had the fortune of attending a performance by an off-Broadway production by The Voca People. It was a singular experience, and I’d like to discuss it by splitting the review into three foci: musicality, performance, and greater significance.
Musically, the Vocas are not overly impressive. By this I mean that as musicians, they are not doing something innovative and incredible. No one can deny that they all have fantastic voices and that they can blend just as well as many professional a cappella groups. And certainly, their covers accurately resemble the original songs. But these things have become givens in the professional a cappella realm, and for the Vocas, musicality is not what makes them shine.
Firstly, it should be noted that the Vocas almost never sing a song in its entirety, instead opting for medleys of songs sharing some thematic relation. Their pervasive use of medleys gives the performance a feel that is significantly more “show” than “concert.” The main deficiency in the group’s general sound was dynamics, the high and low volume points of a song. Because the Vocas were only singing medleys, they intentionally maintained a high energy level and so their performance never really reached a low volume point, a crucial element of music that more readily grants a song emotional meaning. Some of the transitions between songs felt a bit awkward, and occasionally, tuning fell apart.
Finally – and this is just a personal pet peeve – it was announced at the beginning of the show that all noises are made by the human mouth. This is a misleading statement. To the uninitiated of the world of a cappella, the Vocas are a group of superhuman individuals who can make unbelievable noises with their mouths. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely true. They may all be talented singers, but many of the noises they make are substantially enhanced by various digital effects used in conjunction with their microphones. Again, I wish to stress that to the layman, the Voca People certainly sound great and sing songs that everyone recognizes and enjoys, and that these are small gripes, only mentioned because of the high standard to which professional groups need to be held.
Viewing The Voca People as a performance rather than a concert, however, allows for much more praise. As entertainers, quite simply put, they excel. In this conception of the show, the music is framed by points of humor and interactive elements. The Vocas arrive onstage with a storyline: they are a group of aliens who have crashed on our planet because their spaceship, which runs on music, has run out of energy. They must therefore sing earthly tunes and tones to refuel the ship and get back home to Voca. Throughout the show, the Vocas involve many members of the audience, singing the music “contained” in an audience member’s brain by putting their hands on that person’s head. They also engage some of the younger members of the audience by having them pretend to play the instruments the Vocas were emulating (much air-guitar ensued).
In one particularly funny and risqué skit, the male Vocas picked an attractive female from the audience and sang to her, claiming that she was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. They brought her up on stage, danced with (and around, and up against) her, and sang to her, serenading her with tunes kosher and less so. The three female Vocas became wildly “jealous” and each one picked a man from the audience to bring onstage. Given the kippah on my head, it was inevitable that I would be brought up along with two other Jewish men from the audience. We were sung to, danced with, and made to feel uncomfortable. We, along with the audience, were kept roaring with laughter the entire time.
To tie this all together, I believe the show is quite significant, but only as a part of a chain that has already begun. At its core, The Voca People presents another musical forum through which a cappella is being brought to the forefront of society’s musical sentiments. With shows like Glee and The Sing-Off gaining more viewers each week and season, a cappella has never been bigger. College a cappella groups have begun sprouting up all over the country and a cappella videos, as we all know, go viral on YouTube. Off-Broadway is a very important forum, because it is a live show, as opposed to Glee, which meets with complaints of its use of auto-tuning technology, and because it is not a competition like The Sing-Off. Bringing a cappella to the mainstream has been successful, but the next battlefront will be bringing contemporary a cappella to the mainstream.
The Voca People and Glee use a cappella, but not in the way most college and professional groups do. The arrangements are still very “old-school a cappella,” usually featuring progressions of homophonic “ooh” and “ah” or separate instrumental lines. Contemporary a cappella has ventured far beyond this, exploring the possibilities of sounds that only voices can make, including dynamics and diphthongs. To this end, The Sing-Off is doing the best job, while The Voca People are continuing to put more a cappella into the vernacular. That’s not to say it’s not important; it’s just to say that it’s not on the next frontier.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend The Voca People for everyone to see. It’s highly entertaining and it features a lot of great, popular music. Also, it should be noted that if you are under the age of 30, you can get tickets to see The Voca People for $30, which is a bargain for the entertainment you’ll get.
The Voca People perform almost every night at The Westside Theatre, located at 407 W. 43rd St. Tickets are available at http://vocapeoplenyc.com/buy-tickets/ticket-info. Scroll to the bottom for the “Under-30” discount.