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Gobsmacked! is playing at Toronto’s CAA Theatre.Mirvish


2.5 out of 4 stars
  • Gobsmacked!
  • Created by Nic Doodson and Jack Blume
  • Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones
  • Starring Marcus Collins, Ball-Zee, Joanne Evans, Ed Scott, Nick Hayes, Emilie Louise Israel, Monika Sik-Holm
  • Company Mirvish Productions
  • Venue CAA Theatre
  • City Toronto
  • Runs until Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hey, beatboxing fans, you’ve got to check out Ball-Zee, the world-class British beatboxer performing in Gobsmacked! at Toronto’s CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic). Despite that silly handle (his real name is Patrick Hirst), this guy is amazing. Not only is he a human drum machine, he’s also a Foley artist without props. Using just his vocal cords, tongue and lips, he seems able to produce any and every sound effect imaginable, from the roar of a motorcycle engine to the snap of a surgical glove.

The only catch is, to see him you’ll also have to take in an average a cappella show, involving a sextet of Pentatonix wannabes singing a range of pop hits in a formula that’s 90-per-cent technique to 10-per-cent feeling. To be fair, these six young singers are talented – and one of them, Joanne Evans, is outstanding – but over two hours their meagre act wears thin.

In fact, Gobsmacked! looks to have been stretched out from what was originally a one-hour production at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At that length, and in a festival environment, you can see where it would be a bit of breezy fun. But inflated to an evening’s entertainment, it falls far short of its advertising claim to be “the world’s best a cappella and beatboxing show.”

With Toronto its last stop on a short North American tour that began in the fall, it also feels rather tired. On opening night, it wasn’t until the second half that the performances stopped looking entirely mechanical and the singers got into something approaching a groove.

That is, excepting an indefatigable Ball-Zee/Hirst, who not only vocalizes almost all the instrumental backup on nearly every song – helped by live looping, which creates layers of sound – but who also has his own 10-minute solo spot. On top of that, in the show’s flimsy theatrical conceit he’s tasked with playing a character called The Engineer, who prowls Philip Gladwell’s “wall of sound” set – a mountain of speakers – and constantly directs and manipulates the others.

These are The Chap (Marcus Collins), The Girl (Monika Sik-Holm), The Woman (Emilie Louise Israel), The Man (Nick Hayes), The Boy (Ed Scott) and The Lady (Joanne Evans). When not singing, they act out wordless, cartoonish scenarios (embellished with Hirst’s cartoon SFX) on a romantic theme, involving some tepid clowning. Only Sik-Holm’s Girl, wearing a polka-dot dress and a wide-eyed Katy Perry expression, and Scott’s nerdy, elastic-voiced Boy seem fully committed to the goofiness.

And what of the songs? They’re a smorgasbord of pop meant to appeal to a multigenerational audience. So, we’re served up some Lady Gaga (Telephone) and Ed Sheeran (Shape of You), but also Queen (Don’t Stop Me Now), Bowie (Life on Mars) and a couple of tunes by the Beatles. Musical director Jack Blume occasionally comes up with clever arrangements, such as a slow take on She Loves You (sung with real emotion by Israel) and a moody medley of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black. And there’s a fairly exciting rendition of the David Guetta and Sia hit Titanium.

Not surprisingly, that last number showcases Evans, whose singing is a consistent pleasure, whether she’s effortlessly hitting the high notes or adding a pinch of soul to the white-bread playlist with a version of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.

The highlight, though, is not a song at all, but Hirst’s witty variation on the time-honoured drum solo, which finds him elaborately “tuning” and then “playing” an invisible drum kit. It’s a feat of oral virtuosity that should inspire all those mini-beatboxers who watch the Beats in Bites instructional series on TVO.

Gobsmacked! was created by Nic Doodson, a founding member of British a cappella group the Magnets, and Blume, an ex-beatboxer associated with the BBC’s Pitch Battle talent show. It was directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, who has theatre credentials across the pond and is presumably to blame for those weak between-song skits. Better if she had cut them and instead devised some creative choreography for the ensemble.

What the show really needs, though, is more heart – and not those cut-out cardboard ones the singers brandish during one cheesy segue. As I listened to the group’s Winehouse cover, I was reminded of that hilariously peppy student version of Rehab on the first episode of Glee. Almost all of Gobsmacked! functions at that level, with no attempt to dip below the surface of a song. Time and again, the singers strive to impress us with their vocal prowess rather than move us with their interpretation. The lyrics, it seems, mean nothing. They might as well be singing a grocery list.

Gobsmacked! continues to March 25 (

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