If we're being honest, I did not know what to expect. However, I came in with a very open mind to the Cobb Great Hall, and it may have been one of my favorite experiences at the Wharton yet.
In short, the show was light and fun, yet heavy with talent and impeccable comedic timing. English humor is not everyone's cup of tea, but every joke was a hit with the whole audience, keeping everyone laughing while also enjoying incredible music that you didn't think would work in a format such as seven ukuleles.
While you may think of a ukulele as just a less intense guitar, the minute the ensemble started performing, it was an immense sound that was like no other. It sounded like a full orchestra of instruments, even incorporating percussion sounds from certain aspects of their playing. You would also think that with so many people playing the same instrument with the same instrumental range but with differing parts would sound more like chaos, but it was nothing but balanced, melodic sounds.
In fact, you could hear and pick out individual parts by looking at their hands, which was interesting to me, seeing so many people play different melodies but have them all fit together so well. My favorite part, however, was Jonty playing the bass ukulele, which was different from all the other sounds, both in tune and the parts he was playing. The bass was the heartbeat of every song.
The vocals were also incredible in the songs, which was another surprise for me since orchestras are more classical and less vocal heavy. The group was able to not only harmonize with their wooden instruments, but also their natural instruments. In my opinion, the youngest member of the group, Laura Currie, had the best vocals of the group, being a highlight of the entire show.
The most exciting vocal moments included the group singing in rounds and mashing up some of their favorite songs to a classical tune.
“It was really good," said audience member Anna Moreno. "I loved how they did the mashups like who doesn’t like a good mashup?”
While they mainly focused on older, well-known classics in their set such as ZZ Top, Prince and The Clash, they also incorporated modern songs such as a sing-along version of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." They also did surprising favorites such as their take on a spaghetti western theme that would be likely played during an old-fashioned shoot out or desert duel.
My favorite song was their comical rendition of "Play That Funky Music," replacing the lyrics with "play that ukulele music." I also thought that the most impressive was their very fast British blues song, strumming with intensity, but precision.
The group also had some fun choreography, dancing with their ukuleles at some points in unison. However, the most surprising, but comical dance routine is when Ewan Wardrop put down his ukulele in the middle of a bluegrass tune and began to dance on the very edge of the stage, country-style jigging and getting down to the beat. Some audience members close to the stage even through money at him during his performance, obviously mistaking the Wharton for a different kind of venue.
While the music is obviously a main focus of an orchestra, they also brought so much humor to the entire show, riffing off jokes in between, and even during songs. These comedic moments were my favorite part, almost feeling like half a stand up routine and half a concert.
In British fashion, the group made fun of themselves, their concept, and the music they were playing, making jokes out of the whole scenario, which I believe is most fitting for this scenario and this group. If the musicians were to take themselves too seriously, the audience would not react the same, and would have made it much less charming and light-hearted. The group even turned their judgmental eye to the audience, joking about their older-aged demographic, only being met with laughter, the audience then able to also joke about themselves within the comfortable atmosphere between the performers and the audience.
The group also increased this comfortability with how interactive the orchestra was with the crowd. They encouraged people to react: clapping, singing and even playing along.
The group had messaged out to the ticket holders before the show, informing them to bring their ukulele if they had one. As someone who left their ukulele in their hometown, I was very disappointed, but regained excitement after seeing how excited the others were to play along with these professionals.
The group taught the chords and the scratching vamps to the audience before playing their rendition of Lady Gaga, entrusting them to play with them at show tempo. As I was watching many audience members play, there was not one person not keeping up with the group, enthusiastically playing and feeling like they were truly part of the group. It was inspiring to see so many people enjoy their niche interest in one room collectively, playing with people who are world-renowned for this special interest.
Jessica Garrels was one ukulele player in the audience who was inspired by her friend who bought a ukulele on a trip to Hawaii, also pulling her into the interest recently. Playing in the audience was an experience that she had to participate in.
“I’m just learning ukulele, so it was a bit intimidating, but it was also a lot of fun,” Garrels said.
This audience interaction and inclusion made the show what it was, which was a load of fun while also appreciating talented musicians.
Christine McCallister, a founder of Greater Lansing Area Moms, brought her seven-year-old daughter to come see the show, knowing that it would be a night of spirited, family-friendly entertainment. She was first interested in the show because her older son plays ukulele and now wanted to expose a love of music to her daughter.
“They need to be exposed to different things and it's a perfect opportunity,” McCallister said about the nature of the show.
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The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is one thing: unadulterated fun. I was smiling the whole time, and I would recommend this to anyone looking for something different to surprise them.
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