Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve probably heard the singing of “Rockapella,” an a cappella group as steeped in the commercial side of show-biz as in the artistic.
Though it’s been around since 1991, the quintet has never performed at Laguna Playhouse – so hats off to that venue for offering these five super-talented gents a showcase for their masterful vocal skills.
The title of their current show, “Hits Like You Never Heard,” is true only with respect to the fact that although you’ve obviously heard “Imagine,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Moon River” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” you’ve never heard them sung in quite this way.
That singular sound is the end-all and be-all of Rockapella, the group’s sine qua non. Remove it or water it down and you’ve got no Rockapella.
The foundation of that sound is provided by Jeff Thacher, who furnishes what’s called “vocal percussion” through an impressive array of sounds, and Bryant Vance, the current guest bass singer.
That makes high tenor, leader, arranger and member of longest standing Scott Leonard, tenor Calvin C. Jones, and current guest tenor Mitchell Rains the “front men” (though Vance is also frequently featured).
Leonard’s arrangements are tailored specifically for this five-part vocal sound, and that includes the guys working each song and having fun with it, or segueing from one title to another, then back again – Lennon’s “Imagine” morphs into the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” “Blame It On The Boogie” segues into “I’m Your Boogie Man,” and so forth.
This clean-cut quintet’s groove is in tune with a specific mode of American music from the’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and their show a mash-up of pop, soft rock, doo-wop, soul and Motown from those decades.
The energy isn’t manic or in your face, but nor is it low or laid-back. It’s somewhere in-between, yet irresistibly infectious.
Their funky, loose, friendly camaraderie generates much playful stage business, and the act contains a ton of congenial, lighthearted clowning – as when they lug their mic stands around while singing “Chain Gang.”
Providing touches of visual interest are a stream of multicolored abstract lines, shapes and patterns flashed across the rear upstage screen.
Clearly the group’s leader, Leonard is also the most eccentric of the five, from his glib, flip, wacky persona to his singular physical moves.
Impishly playful fellow tenor Rains also dabbles in comedic business, and Jones’ soft, sweet, gentle tenor vocals, sunny disposition and genuine sincerity are his stock-in-trade.
Often used as vocal punctuation, Vance’s purring, silky-smooth, ultra-low basso profundo elicits laughs of amazement and awe, while Thacher’s skill in sounding like multiple people, or instruments, is simply uncanny.
As with all good singers, the guys enhance each song’s lyrics via expressions, gestures and mime. The emphasis is always on each song’s lyrics and story, its melodies and its rhythms, facets heightened by Leonard’s enjoyable arrangements.
And while Thacher is the designated rhythm king, often set upstage to do his thing, all five can be seen beating out time by snapping their fingers, singing rhythmic syllables or making popping or whooshing sounds.
The playlist is soft-pedaled and easy to take, the kind of approach known in an earlier era as easy listening. In fact, the Rockapella style may be too relaxed for some, but you can’t deny that there’s a real art form to perfecting this type of singing.
Leonard’s loves include Big Band music and the work of the Mills Brothers. The similarities between Rockapella and that famed quartet are clear, and its rendition of the Mills’ greatest hit, “Paper Doll,” is a sweetly satisfying tribute.
The guys direct much of their banter toward the front row or to specific patrons. In the performance reviewed, a woman went from spectator to performer, joining in on “Stand By Me,” then being serenaded with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
The show’s shorter second act focuses on Rockapella originals comprised mostly of product jingles written and recorded for the corporate world, with all manner of ditties including Almond Joy, Folger’s Coffee and Dr. Pepper.
The segment gets laughs, as when a ringworm cure is touted to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” rhyming the words “jungle” and “antifungal” – but it’s mainly a change of pace.
Rockapella’s true essence is best epitomized by the ’50s guy group-style crooning, sans mics, of encores like “Up On The Roof” and “Wonderful World” – soft, easy-to-take, pure vocal magic.