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Rockapella celebrates 25 years at Laguna Playhouse

A shot of apple cider vinegar before taking the stage is the national touring group Rockapella’s key secret for clearing the vocal chords to last a full a cappella concert.

But what is the group’s secret to lasting more than 25 years as a globally-known a cappella sensation? Original member Scott Leonard believes it is because of the group’s distinct sound and unique arrangements of hit songs by artists from Elvis to Macklemore.

“Our sound is almost like a brand; when you hear us, you know it’s us,” said Leonard, “There’s also nothing between the audience and us; just voices. There are no gimmicks, just lots of joy in our concerts.”

The group first saw success in the early 1990s when they were hired as the house band on the PBS television game show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Yes, they are the group that sings the catchy theme song.

The New York-based group, which originally formed at Brown University in 1986, has recorded 19 albums in both North America and overseas. They have a plethora of original vocal tracks and a cappella covers, and are constantly adding to that collection as new music and genres surface.

“I always feel like if we are going to do big hits, they have to be different and like nothing you’ve ever heard before. So there has to be these unique arrangements and talent in performing it, and I can say, the approach and execution with this group is unmatched,” said Leonard, who is the last performing original member from the “Carmen Sandiego” group.

The Laguna Playhouse stage will present the group’s newest touring concert “Hits Like You Never Heard” for three weeks, beginning Wednesday and running through Aug. 28. This will be the first time the group has performed at the playhouse.

Over the last couple of decades, the group has opened for acts such as Billy Joel, Styx, Chuck Berry and the Persuasions. The five-member group has seen many vocal artist changes, with the current lineup consisting of Leonard (since 1991, high tenor), Jeff Thacher (since 1993, vocal percussionist), Steven Dorian (since 2010, tenor), Calvin Jones (since 2013, tenor) and Bryant Vance (since 2016, bass).

Although a cappella vocal groups has grown in popularity with television shows such as “Glee” on Fox and “The Sing-Off,” as well as hit films like “Pitch Perfect,” Leonard said Rockapella works hard to make sure their original hits and covers of rock, pop, Motown, soul and hip hop stays contemporary and original to stand out from the others.

Leonard prepares the musical arrangements by recording all parts of each song in his studio, then sending the guys MP3s of the recordings, so they can rehearse on their own.

“It saves a lot of rehearsal time, so we don’t have to constantly get together; you just learn the songs on your own and come together in sound-check when they’re ready. This is very efficient because we can perfect our parts and not get on each other’s nerves too much in practice,” said Leonard.

The multimedia concert will display various images and graphics on a large screen while the group is performing. Other than that, the vocal band does not have any other instruments or equipment.

The group also does not stick to a set list, said Leonard, allowing audience interaction and song suggestions throughout their concert to make every show different.

“We’re basically a rock band; you have bass, drums, melody and guys singing clever backups that are counterpoint to the melody so they don’t get in the way. Applying that formula to any song, whether it be 1940s Mills Brothers or Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” makes Rockapella transcend any kind of era or sound.”