By MARK BLANKENSHIP
How do we define "universal entertainment?" What makes a show reach all generations on every continent?
Plenty of artists are trying to answer those questions. If they succeed, then they can reach millions (and make a fortune in the process).
"It's like a Coca-Cola formula," says Lior Kalfo, and he may have brewed the magic potion. An Israeli writer, director, and performer, he's the co-creator of the international hit Voca People, a "vocal theatre performance" that blends a cappella singing, clowning, and popular music.
The premise is that aliens called the Voca have crashed on earth, and they need the power of music to recharge their ship and fly home. In front of an audience, they perform a cappella versions of classic pops songs until they’ve got the power they need, and in between songs the perform silly bits.
The a cappella routines are impressively complex. Some singers belt the lyrics to, say, Beach Boys and Madonna hits, some provide beatboxing, and others imitate instruments, creating a rich and layered sound. The Voca style has gone viral on YouTube, where their videos have collected millions of views, and the stage show has traveled as far afield as Israel, Spain, France, and the United States. (The current Off-Broadway run, at the Westside Theatre, officially opens tonight.)
The show has many broadly appealing elements. A cappella music, for instance, not only sounds good, but also has the wow factor of precise, physically impressive performances. (There's a similar allure in Stomp, the long-running hit that features performers creating percussion music with everyday objects like trash cans and push brooms.)
It's crucial, too, that the Voca sing popular songs. Blockbuster musicals like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys prove it's always fun to hear familiar tunes, and the song list for Voca People is altered for each country to include local hits.
Outside of the lyrics, however, the aliens only speak gibberish or communicate through gestures. That means anyone can understand them, no matter which language they speak.
Kalfo, who's a sitcom star in Israel, wants to apply these elements to comedy. "As a director and creator, I'm trying to find the 'international humor,'" he says. "I was doing a lot of international shows, going from country to country, and trying to figure out what makes people tick, what makes them laugh. I'm trying to figure out the common joke, a physical joke normally, that will work on both a five year-old and his grandfather."
As circus clowns could tell you, physical humor almost always translates. Near the beginning of Voca People, the aliens peer at the audience and then make it clear they think humans are ugly. The joke, obviously, is that the Voca look ugly to us, and almost everyone can understand that. "Physical reactions and sound reactions are really international," Kalfo says.
It also matters that the Voca are aliens, dressed in white suits and wearing white make-up and bald caps. Like the performers in the Blue Man Group, they are physically altered to seem "human-esque" without belonging to any particular ethnicity or nation. That means anyone in the audience can identify with them, and that can only help the Voca find fans around the world.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor