BWW Reviews: PENTATONIX Ignites DC's DAR Constitution Hall
Groups of squealing teenagers in school choir jackets, 20-somethings out on date night, parents with younger children, and numerous older couples as well...
Judging by the excited buzz that quickly overtook the far too underused DAR Constitution Hall this weekend even before the singers took the stage, it's quite clear the diverse audience had one thing in common - they were all ready to see Pentatonix. Following a win in the third season of NBC's a cappella vocal competition, The Sing-Off, the group of five talented singers secured an even larger devoted following on YouTube thanks to their creative arrangements of popular music hits, tight harmonies, and quite entertaining videos that many times go viral. Their online social media presence, series of sold out concerts, three well-produced albums, television appearances, and interviews and more also made them a bit like the ambassadors of the a cappella music community - putting the genre in the mainstream public eye perhaps once again. One could chalk this attention up to a solid mix of great talent and marketing, and the fact that they're really unique and pretty hip, but there's more than that. Regardless of the label one puts on the group, Pentatonix displays mad vocal prowess, period.
A vocal prowess, I might add, that's even more appreciable live. One can't say that about many groups these days, particularly those that attain mainstream attention.
From the moment the group stepped on stage at the DAR Constitution Hall this past weekend, the audience was in high energy mode. So too were the members of Pentatonix - Avi Kaplan, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Kevin Olusola. Accompanied by a snazzy light design and other polished technical elements, the talented yet personable performers captured the audience's attention immediately and never let it go. The energy was pretty much indescribable and probably for good reason.
Whether singing one of their original songs like "Natural Disaster," covers of some silly but well-known Beyoncé tunes, or other selections viewers of The Sing-Off may remember ("Video Killed the Radio Star" and "E.T.," for example), every performance of every song had several things in common. Their pleasing and tight yet complex harmonies that would be the envy of any vocal group, and creative and highly original arrangements were made that much more fun to experience thanks to the group's enormous stage presence, great connection with one another, and clear joy over performing for the crowd.
Whatever I may have thought of the lyrical downfalls of some of the pop covers were quickly forgotten the minute that I began to focus on how clever and diverse their musical arrangements were and the idea that those choices made the songs even more interesting from a composition perspective. Added to that, however much I may have appreciated that none of the arrangements were of the boilerplate variety - such as sometimes can be a problem with less-experienced groups - their skill at executing those creations flawlessly was also something of a marvel.
Whether on an upbeat number or a ballad, each performer proved capable of making an individual impression in their solo moments. Avi Kaplan's strong bass voice, Kirstie Maldonado's versatile and rangy voice that's suited for radio or Broadway, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi's rich, high soaring yet mercifully non-nasally voices, and Kevin Olusola's strong percussive/vocal contributions are certainly great on their own. Yet they also affirmed their unteachable ability to come together as one in a near instant to achieve a blended, yet explosive sound that defies the fact they're only five in number. Every chord they sang at the concert was gloriously filled out and there were no 'gaps' to be found. The vocal percussion also complemented and enhanced the singing rather than detracting attention from it. Nothing was messy. Everything was seamless and polished, yet very much in the moment.
To call out some of my favorite moments would be a challenge because there were so many, but I shall give it a try.
First and foremost, the group deserves enormous kudos for taking on their original song "Run To You" 'unplugged' and making it work in such a large venue. A confection of emotion and pitch perfect vocals, it was a pleasure to hear their vocal talents in their natural and purest form. If anything, it made me wish for an opportunity to listen to them in a more intimate venue. As they sang this selection, the crowd fell silent, entranced by the beauty of their music and obvious skill. Yes, even the squealing teenagers. No small feat.
Another highlight came with a performance of their popular YouTube hit, "The Evolution of Music," which covers centuries of music in a span of several minutes. I appreciated this selection for several reasons. First, when is the last time you heard 50s, 60s, and 70s pop music in the same number as "Danny Boy" and other traditional selections? Second, I appreciated the fact that they conveyed their clearly expansive knowledge of music while simultaneously creatively educating the younger crowd in the audience about musical offerings that may not be found on the recent pop charts. Third, they pretty much sang the snippets of all their chosen songs - over 30 in all - with exquisite skill.
Another highpoint came in an unlikely place for me: the hip-hop flavored yet old school performance of "Hey Momma/Hit the Road Jack." The inclusion of a variety of vocal styles - including spoken word - and original music mixed with a well-known song could have resulted in a schizophrenic kind of performance, but that was certainly not the case. It was classic yet modern, inventive, yet true to the roots of the base song.
Quirky moments - such as Kevin playing an original song on the cello while beatboxing or Avi showing off his ability to sing two notes at once - together with standard vocal group numbers also demonstrated the clear musicianship at play within the group. They also reinforced the message that while Pentatonix may be unique, they are certainly not a novelty act.
I look forward to seeing Pentatonix continue to make an impression on the American music scene. They have the goods to go far and make long-lasting contributions.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
This review covers Pentatonix's concert at DAR Constitution Hall (1776 D Street, NW in Washington, DC) on March 29, 2014. For a list of upcoming (but mostly sold out) tour dates around the country and globe, consult the group's official website.
For more information on how Pentatonix's music offerings come together and some thoughts on their tour, see BroadwayWorld.Com's interview with group member Mitch Grassi.
Photo by Brandon Lyon (left to right - Avi Kaplan, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Kevin Olusola)