by Richard Dodds
Raise your hand if you remember the Swingle Singers. Not many raised hands out there, but in the 1960s, they were one epitome of musical cool. Providing both vocals and vocalized accompaniment, their repertoire ranged from Bach to the Beatles. I hadn't thought in decades about the Swingle Singers (who still exist, if not so coolly) until the Voca People started their show with a cappella segues from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to the "Hallelujah" chorus to "Mr. Sandman." Several other pop tunes get mashed into the opening medley, and while only a snippet of ABBA gets mid-medley applause – curious socio-musical datum – a roar of surprised delight erupted at its end.
Unlike the Swingle Singers, made up of carbon-based terrestrials, the Voca People are from another world and look like it. The opening-night audience at Marines' Memorial Theatre was understandably uncertain about what it was in for, as eight performers with ruby red lips who otherwise look as if they had been dipped in Wite-Out wandered onstage. The troupe is only three years old, conceived in Israel by Lior Kalfo and Shai Fishman, with initial fame coming in Italy because of a YouTube clip, and landing on our continent less than a year ago.
But this 90-minute entertainment, goofy yet musically adept, quickly establishes a goodwill vibe in the audience. Ostensibly stranded on Earth when their spaceship runs out of fuel, the Voca People need music to energize their transport. An audience member is brought to the stage apron, and with a laying-on of hands, a mind-meld transmits the world's entire musical library into these visitors. But earthling behavior remains a stuttering second language, exemplified in the choreography comically suggesting somewhat frantic efforts at replication.
The mind-meld is just one of many moments of audience participation, both in group form and in dragooned individual involvement, and the Voca People spend a good deal of time working from the theater aisles. On opening night at least, those plucked to contribute did so convivially. There is an innocence to the Voca People personae, born of amiability, anonymity, and their own often dithering reactions to the alien environment in which the plot has put them.
"Plot" actually needs quote marks, for it is a thin excuse for the group's impressive vocalizing on a repertoire that would otherwise be inexplicable. The theme from Pink Panther lives alongside Mozart's Magic Flute, which also shares space with Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." Some of the selections are vocalized instrumentals, some are beat-boxed rhythms, some are strictly vocals, and at times, I admit, I wasn't sure what they were doing.
While the identical costuming and makeup suggest a species without individuality, these creatures do have sexuality. When the male members show too much interest in chosen females in the audience, the women rebel with a medley that puts them on the prowl. It's a welcome change of pace for a show that is pushing its limits at 90 minutes. The Voca People are happy to be able to go home, and the audience is happy to have made their acquaintance and to bid them a fond farewell.
Voca People will run at Marines' Memorial Theatre through June 17. Tickets are $49-$75. Call 771-6900 or go to www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com.