Entertainment

Gobsmacked! rides the a cappella wave into Toronto’s CAA Theatre

In a world where Pitch Perfect, Pentatonix and Glee have all been big successes, a cappella singing has been enjoying a boom it has not seen for generations.

That’s one of the reasons that Gobsmacked! was created. The show, which takes over the CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic) for a two-week run starting Wednesday night, is a fast-paced, uplifting run through vocal music, anchored and often highlighted by Ball-Zee, a world-class beatboxer born Patrick Hirst.

He’s been with show since its inception almost three years ago and has toured all over the world with it since.

Hirst, 29, acknowledges the wave he’s riding has a lot to do with those other high-profile venues for a cappella, “although I’ve never actually seen Glee. We have elements of that; however, I like to think that ours is a lot more real. It’s 100 per cent live, for a start, and the show is a lot of fun. We’d had so much fun touring it so far.

“I like to think of it as new-school a cappella, in the sense that we just don’t do traditional doo-wop and stuff like that, and we have songs the range from the Beatles and James Brown up to like Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé. There’s something for everybody,” he added, in an interview in Toronto after the company arrived.

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Counting classic beatboxers like Biz Markie, Rahzel, Killa Kela as inspirations, Hirst — three-time U.K. beatbox champion — creates amazing percussive sounds with his mouth, instantly dropping beats and more complicated breaks that demonstrate the expertise he’s built up after 15 years of practice.
BallZee, right, with Gobsmacked! costars Joanne Evans and Ed Scott.

BallZee, right, with Gobsmacked! costars Joanne Evans and Ed Scott.  (MIRVISH PRODUCTIONS)

“That’s the beautiful thing about the show; at times, I have to be really disciplined on a groove (providing a rhythm for the singers), but I love doing that because it is music at the end of the day. Then on other numbers, I have to go really fast with more intricate parts, so it keeps it really fresh for me.”

He adds, “When I listen to old school a cappella, as amazing as it is, I wouldn’t want to do that, because it looks quite boring for the beatboxer. They don’t even get called a beatboxer, they are the vocal percussionist.

“Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them are amazing, but I love pushing the boundaries with my voice in terms of beatboxing and seeing what you can do and, combining that with new-school a cappella, you can get some amazing stuff.”

Hirst says the show’s music writer is also a beatboxer and, knowing Ball-Zee’s skills, will often write more involved parts for him to do.

Of course, the show is also filled with other talented and more traditional vocalists, like Marcus Collins, who was the 2011 runner-up in the British version of The X Factor; Nick Hayes, who has performed on London’s West End, as well as Joanna Evans — dubbed “The Diva” in Gobsmacked!’s promotional material — who has performed with several British opera companies.

I ask Hirst if there was any friction caused by the very different paths that these musicians had taken to get to the show.

“I’d like to think we all got along as soon as I walked in, but maybe it was ‘Who is this guy making stupid noises?’” says Hirst. “We do have in-jokes: for instance one of the singers, Joanna, is classically trained and we just bring that up at every single point possible. ‘Oh, did we mention that she’s classically trained?’ and I get the opposite end of the spectrum. I can’t read music.

“I mean I produce music and I make music, but if you write it down and try to give it to me to read it, I’m stumped. And all those guys are Mozart when it comes to reading music.”

Gobsmacked! runs from March 14 to 25 at the CAA Theatre, at 651 Yonge Street. See mirvish.com or call 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

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