At the Fringe – 9/17/16 – RIT A cappella, Susan Cotroneo, Invisible Boxes

At this year's First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival 2016, I review the RIT A cappella Hour, Susan Cotroneo's "A Song to Sing," and Dave Rivello's "Invisible Boxes."

At the Fringe – 9/17/16 – RIT A cappella, Susan Cotroneo, Invisible Boxes

Catching three shows last night, there’s plenty to talk about; four RIT a cappella groups taking turns at the Little Theatre, Susan Cotroneo at the Lyric Theatre, and Dave Rivello with his ensemble with  a handful of dancers at Kilbourn Hall. Let’s dig in.

At the RIT a cappella hour, four of RIT’s groups took turns dispensing their own forms of a cappella. All these groups on stage had issues projecting to the back rows in this venue. Yes, when mic’d, acts sound great and are crystal clear. The lower voices were almost totally lost, the vocal percussion was airy, and only a couple lead singers rose above the accompaniment effectively. A more resonant – or smaller venue – might have worked better.

First was the Hawai’an shirt-cladded Brick City Singers. The biggest of the groups, these guys sang some great radio hits; “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” “Twist and Shout,” and a medley of “Forget You” and “Lips Are Movin’.”

Fun is the name of the game for these guys, and they delivered. Smiles were evident throughout the whole show, and despite some tuning issues, their lead singers – particularly the second lead – were enough to carry the show.

Next was Surround Sound, RIT’s barbershop group. Made of about 10 guys, they tackled some very ambitious material (barbershop is hard, anyway), especially since half the members had only been with the group for two weeks. They sang “Crazy About You Baby,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Go the Distance.” These guys displayed some impressive things. They stayed on key, breath control was good, and the tuning was good in spots; sevenths could be flatter, but the overtones were good. With more time, they will be in great shape for this semester.

Vocal Accent, the all female-group, sang three R&B influenced tunes. The lead singer for the first and third tunes was the best lead of the night, soaring over the acoustic issues of the space. The arrangements were excellent, and displayed tight blend that showcased their ensemble well. With an emphasis on darker sounds and heavier harmonies, these gals provided a great change of pace for the evening.

Finally, Eight Beat Measure wrapped it up, and they were the best of the bunch. Preferring a more ensemble sound than a solo lead singer, these guys filled up the hall, with tight tuning, and clean rhythm and sound. They also sang some standard fare, “Cecilia,” “(I Like They Way) You Love Me,” and “First and Last For Me.” Sporting the best arrangements as well, they weaved vocal percussion, different textures and countermelodies well.

However, they also sang “Coney Island Baby,” a barbershop standard. While it was performed very well in a classic, fun, barbershop manner, it was an unnecessary addition, given that a barbershop group had performed before, and was still in the house.

In the Lyric Theatre, managing director of the Lyric Opera Susan Cotroneo sang her program, “A Song to Sing.”

Filled with audience favorites from many plays and movies, and a little opera, Cotroneo displayed great versatility, singing Patridge Family Tunes to show tunes. She even played some piano, which she admitted scared her more than anything else. The band was solid, filled with familiar faces, most notably Julie Covach on piano and Alex Patrick on guitar. The music was nice and easy to listen to, and many audience members sang along.

In a show that went for an hour and fifteen minutes, there were about eight tunes. There were instances in which Cotroneo talked longer than the song she introduced, often telling multiple stories about growing up. While she admitted that she let the time get away from her – which is understandable given how personal this project is – more emphasis on the music would have enhanced this otherwise nice performance.

The highlight of the evening was the multi-disciplinary project “Invisible Boxes.” The concept behind the show was Dave Rivello (and his ensemble), sculptor and artist Mark McDermott, and dancer/ choreographer Collette Fuierer, was to create a show that explored the “invisible boxes” we place on ourselves, and how we free ourselves from that box.

That may be very abstract to think about, and many of the people waiting for the show weren’t sure what to expect. It was an amazing performance, with an incredibly high-energy display from the Dave Rivello ensemble, as they formulated a perfect emotional arc, telling an excellent story. The sound of the music had Rivello’s signature “dark” touch, but with rocking drum and bass lines, and jazz-influenced soothing then screaming horns, and kept both an introverted sense and a declarative anthem, as the show went through the awakening (the dancers were on the floor mostly), reinvention, and struggle and resolution.

The dancing, which interacted with the light boxed in the nearly completely dark Kilbourn Hall, expertly highlighted the emotional arc of the piece, both complementing and bringing out the music. Fuierer was accompanied by three younger female dancers, and former Garth Fagan Dance member Christopher Morrison, who stole the show with his martial-arts-influenced solo dancing, and his wonderful duet with one of the younger dancers.

Before the show, the audience was given a small box that said “What did you…” and on the inside had a clipping of the score that finished the sentence with “See, hear, feel?” that represented the “invisible box” theme and encouraged the audience to contemplate the show.

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