The Choir of Man review
Time Out says
The pub choir sensation from Edinburgh Fringe is playing Arts Centre Melbourne
Male choirs have such a long history they are most likely prehistoric, and range from the monastic tradition of Gregorian chanting to the highly populist crowd pleasing of the Ten Tenors. There’s always something inescapably daggy about them, a tendency new outfit The Choir of Man seems to exploit and even revel in. After all, it’s very hard to sing ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ with your dignity intact.
The group emerged from the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, and they’ve now packaged, polished and presented it to the world in what feels a little like a pop-up Once, the musical that charmed the pants off Melburnians back in 2014. It has the folksy feel, the cast who sing and play their own instruments, and even the faux pub that pulls real beers; and it has something of that show’s determination to entertain that comes dangerously close to harassment.
It’s all in good fun, but it is so full of forced bonhomie it makes you want to resist. Before we begin, we are all invited onto the stage and plied with free beers (Once did this too, at least on opening night), so that “the more you drink the better we sound”. This is unnecessary, because they sound pretty good from the get go, but it also invites a sneaking suspicion that the mood is a manufactured one. When they resort to splitting the audience in two and getting us to compete with each other, we realise they’ll really stop at nothing.
The show starts with an introduction to the pub itself, which seems to have been named the Jungle so that the boys can open with ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ – I’ve personally never heard of an English pub called the Jungle, but I’m sure there is one out there somewhere. It’s a place of comfort and companionship, as our narrator tells us with the kind of twinkly good humour you only really see in Leprechauns.
What follows is something between a concert, a song cycle and one of those karaoke nights you go on that turns out to be full of really talented hipsters. Nic Blume’s arrangements tend to swing from the rousing to the sweetly melancholy, and the singing is never less than impressive. But not all the songs work – Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ is sung by the whole choir a cappella, in a lovely-sounding arrangement that renders the song completely meaningless. The addition of ‘You’re the Voice’ seems rather cynically added near the end to placate a deeply parochial vein in the audience.
But there are compensations. A couple of the voices are really beautiful, and one of the performers delivers a terrific tap routine with a serious degree of difficulty. The instrumental work is solid, and there’s something particularly heartwarming about the optics of a bunch of guys emoting through song. There is even a backflipping barman with a fine voice who would make Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle proud.
It’s just a pity the boys, and the sound and lighting designers, try too hard to get us to love them. The show has recently toured America, and no doubt played well there; something about the aggressive jollity, the sense that you can get people to like you by sheer willpower alone, suits the yanks more than us. If they’d relaxed us into the mood, and ditched the “poetry” by Ben Norris that is really only platitudes wrapped in cheap sentiment, we might get enough space to lean in to the dagginess. We might get a chance to be genuinely charmed.