The British slang term “gobsmacked” means utterly astonished, and that’s a pretty good way to describe how I felt after watching the touring UK sensation at the Broadway Playhouse on East Chestnut. This is not your grandfather’s a capella show; the Gobsmacked crew practically redefines the medium, telling stories through the songs and the sounds they are able to create with their voices alone. I don’t know what I expected when I went in, but I didn’t expect to be blown away. “Gobsmacked” blew me away.
This is a very, very talented group. Performing on a set meant to look like a huge pile of speakers lying on top of each other that in reality houses lights that flash on and off during songs, the group is led by “Conductor” Ball Zee, Britain’s three-time champion beatboxer and currently part of the world’s champion beatboxing team. Even if you have little to no understanding of the art of beatboxing, you will be astounded at what Zee can do, the sheer variety of sounds he can produce as well as the ways in which he uses them. At one point in Act Two, he treats the audience to a beatbox solo, hearkening back to the drum solo tradition that has been part of rock concerts since before John Bonham ever composed “Moby Dick.” But here, with all sounds created using his voice, the effect is somehow even more amazing: we hear the drums, but we see a man with a microphone.
Zee also serves in his stated purpose as “conductor,” leading the group in and out of songs and scenarios, creating complex staged moments like a subway car or a jukebox that morphs into a CD player and a record player, etc., to showcase snippets from various eras. (Zee’s scratchy record has got to be heard to be believed.) He also sets up the other performers for their own showcase pieces.
Those performers include Marcus Collins, a gifted tenor who kills it with Bowie’s “Is There Life On Mars?” Ed Scott, “the worlds sexiest bass,” who has tons of fun with Prince’s “Kiss” (sung in falsetto), Joanne Evans, whose sultry alto voice works beautifully in the blues number “Man’s World,” Emilie Louise Israel, whose covers of songs as varied as “She Loves You” and “Telephone” show her tremendous range, Nicholas Hayes, who rocks out to several numbers including “Mr. Brightside,” and soprano Monica Sik Holm, whose cover of “(You’ve Got Me Beggin’ You For) Mercy” brings the house down. Every one of them, and often several of them together, have glorious moments during the course of the evening.
This is a rollicking, fun show that makes for a great night out. Personally, I could have done without the intermission; it dragged the evening on a bit too long and, unless beatboxing is a voice-killer (which for all I know it might be), shouldn’t really be necessary. But that is a small matter, and I won’t begrudge the group their rest. They provided one heck of a show for everyone from a devotee of a capella to the complete neophyte. Their energy is boundless and their joy in performance is clear and obvious. Go get gobsmacked. They’re only here for five nights, so don’t wait.
Gobsmacked is now playing at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut until December 10. Tickets start at $39 and are available from ticketmaster. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member