Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Audiences of all ages are fully entertained by an hour of terrific singing, effective staging, and fun from the 11 talented vocalists in Out of the Blue.
Singing a cappella (minus instrumental accompaniment) is very challenging. The first and most important requirement is to stay in tune, individually and with the others in the group. If you add an entertainment component, it has to be carefully designed to fit the program, not simply gratuitous movement. The song transitions should be smooth. And a bonus is audience engagement.
Out of the Blue, University of Oxford’s all-male large a cappella ensemble, has hit the right notes – literally and figuratively. They have perfected the combination of great song choices, excellent vocal arrangements, solid singing, and audience interaction. The pieces please all generations, from some of the hot new tunes to old favourites. By the end of the show, people are on their feet cheering and clapping.
The lights dim, haze fills the stage, and the show opens with a power version of Bruno Mars’ “Locked out of Heaven” featuring outstanding soloist Ali Blair. With a smooth transition, we’re treated to the Out of the Blue version of the Backstreet Boys, fully choreographed, with “Everybody”. The dance is so slick that this could be a music video.
Moving beyond the pop tunes, the group beautifully delivers complex jazz harmonies in the Etta James classic, “At Last” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”. It’s off to Disney with a medley of tunes from the movie “Frozen”. Other pieces come from the songbooks of Dua Lipa, Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande, Imagine Dragons and more. By the end of the performance, everyone is dancing with the group to Abba’s”Dancing Queen”.
The show is well-paced with a good variety of song styles and presentation. An interplay between the vocal percussionist/beatboxer and a tap dancer is a stand-out routine. The dramatic moments are well-balanced with the full-out energy and fun of some of the pop tunes.
A top performer is Solomon Chann. He is one of the best collegiate vocal percussionists I have ever heard. He has a full range of sounds and uses them effectively in each song.
For those used to seeing university groups sans microphones in a nicely put together thematic presentation, this show is a cut above. All of the singers are on wireless mics, allowing for their excellent sound engineer to create the perfect balance in the harmonies and lead singer, ensuring best use of dynamics without losing any fidelity in the quieter songs.
All of the arrangements are innovative and are created internally by one of the group members. These sophisticated arrangements are built to highlight the strength of the group and each song’s lead singer. A bonus is the interesting chord voicings, especially at the end of the first song. The ensemble work is very effective, ranging from parts with three or four singers to full group engagement.
The popular touring group “Straight No Chaser” started as a male a cappella ensemble at Indiana University in the U.S. . After finding success in touring, the members quit their “day jobs” to be full time musicians. And it paid off. They sell out concerts worldwide, are featured on television, and have millions of fans. This talented ensemble of singers in Out of the Blue could follow that path if they didn’t go into their chosen careers. They have the talent, the discipline, and the understanding of how to provide a fantastic experience for their audience while ensuring the highest level of musicality.
Out of the Blue is the top a cappella group in the UK by number of championships. Their viral videos have received over 17 million views on YouTube. They have performed on the West End and on Broadway, reached the semifinals of Britain’s Got Talent, and toured to Switzerland, Canada, India, Hong Kong, and Japan. This is their 19th year performing at the Fringe.
The performers are from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University. It is a highly selective group. Nearly 100 students audition for the coveted five or six open slots each year. The preparation is demanding. They rehearse three times weekly, two hours per session. This is on top of their regular academic demands. There are no music students in the group. These are future lawyers, history professors, executives, and more.
The singers are: Ali Blair, Josh Babu and Cam Tweed, tenor 1; Dec Foster, Rhys Surtees, and Saul Briscoe, tenor 2; Angus Millard and Marcus Wells, baritone; Liam Elkind and Jonny Yang, bass; and Solomon Chann on vocal percussion.
In addition to their dedication to the music, the group has chosen to support the Helen and Douglas House, a local children’s hospice. At the end of the show, people are invited to donate to this important charity. The group donates their own end-of-year profits to the cause.
These men can sing, and they have heart. It’s a perfect combination for a group that has earned worldwide respect – and provides a thoroughly entertaining experience for all who have the opportunity to take in this fantastic show.