Deke Sharon spreads a cappella message with Vocalosity
If Deke Sharon could “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” to quote the old Coca-Cola ad, he’d do it. “I know it sounds corny,” he says. “But the joy, power, connection, and spirituality of vocal harmony is something I want everybody to experience. Part of the brain lights up, and it’s transformative.”
While Sharon may not have reached the entire world, he’s definitely gotten the ball rolling through vocal organizations, books, some 2,000 arrangements, and live/filmed performance projects including “Pitch Perfect,” “Pitch Slapped,” and “The Sing-Off.” His most recent initiative is Vocalosity, a 12-member a cappella group that made its stage debut and released its first recording just last month. The group performs Feb. 16 at the Shubert Theatre as part of a 30-city tour.
Sharon, the brains behind the show as well as its music director, arranger, and artistic producer, says the show is selling out performances, reflecting the recent explosion in popularity of a cappella, which refers to vocal music with no instrumental accompaniment. And for Vocalosity, no lip-synching, either: The cast sings live throughout, with repertoire ranging from a “Sound of Music” send-up to tunes by Janelle Monáe and Bruno Mars. One segment traces the history of vocal music, from Gregorian chant to the present day, through Beatles songs. A Led Zeppelin tune uses distortion pedals to turn the group into a rock band.
Not only is the cast singing throughout, they’re moving as well. Hometown boy Sean Curran, a longtime member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and one of the original members of “STOMP,” directs and choreographs the show to keep the dancers in near constant motion, even incorporating Indian body percussion. A Motown “boy-meets-girl mini-musical” features vocalists in full swing-dance mode.
“These people are singing incredibly difficult harmonies and I am making them do pretty sophisticated stuff spatially and rhythmically,” Curran says, “kind of like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. It’s not easy, and we had to put it together quickly, but these guys are triple threats — singing, dancing, acting/comedy — and great collaborators.”
Vocalosity reflects Sharon’s mission to push the boundaries of a cappella. He believes part of the genre’s appeal comes as a reaction to digitization in today’s music. “Producers are trying to make everything perfect, and so much of the humanity is stripped out of it,” he contends. “I think a cappella is a longing for that personal connection. The human voice is the most dynamic of all instruments. It can make you laugh or cry within three seconds.”
That dynamism and versatility guided Sharon’s casting choices, with singers coming from classical, Broadway, and jazz backgrounds. Several are Berklee College of Music alumni. “Most groups try to put together a homogenous sound structured around uniformity and clarity of tone,” Sharon explains. “I wanted the opposite: 12 different personalities and vocal techniques.”
“We really appreciate those differences,” says mezzo Nicole Weiss, who grew up in Stoughton. “We’re really supportive of each others’ personal journey.” She notes a section in the show in which the singers share how music has impacted their lives. “It’s amazing to feel safe enough to share those stories in front of an audience. One girl came up at the end of a show with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Thank you — your story is my story.’”
Sharon adds, “A cappella brings together a diversity of people who might never have met. It’s bigger than individuals. I saw that in college, guys who’d never sit at the same table in the cafeteria becoming fast friends [through singing].“
Sharon started singing before he could talk, and performed professionally by age 8. His musical epiphany came as a teenager in San Francisco, when the renowned Tufts University Beelzebubs sang at his high school. “It was like a shaft of light from heaven,” Sharon recalls. He told his choral director, “I’m going to make a career of a cappella and change the world.” His teacher laughed at the time, but now is one of Sharon’s enthusiastic fans.
During college at Tufts and New England Conservatory, Sharon founded the Contemporary A Cappella Society and sang with the Beelzebubs. He also began serious arranging, using vocal percussion and multi-layered harmonies to create a vocal orchestra. In Vocalosity, voices conjure percussion , brass, and woodwinds. “My thesis is to show people what the voice can do,” he says.
For Sharon, Vocalosity is a way to spread the gospel of singing. Every show features a local group from the region — in Boston, that honor goes to Boston University’s all-male the Dear Abbeys — and during intermission, audiences can peruse brochures on local and national vocal organizations at tables in the lobby.
It’s all a part of advocating for the communal power of the human voice. “Singing is pervasive throughout every community worldwide throughout history,” Sharon claims. “It’s a fundamental part of who we are. My life’s work is to get people singing, to get the culture back to community singing. The human voice is a muscle; you exercise that muscle and you get better and better, get joy in your life, and have this great group of friends.”
At Shubert Theatre, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $29.50-$49.50. 617-532-1116, www.citicenter.org