Like a bit of ragtime? Classic tunes from 1912? Henry Mancini ballads in four-part harmony? You’d be in luck with the animated stylings of the Sussex Harmonisers, a nearly 50-strong group of gentlemen (no teens to be seen), who sing Barbershop in both technique and substance. The Harmonisers opened the evening with breezy Sinatra number ‘I’m Gonna Live Till I Die’ and sped through the night on a wave of 60’s classics (‘Da Doo Ron Ron’) and a cappella staples such as ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.
Musical Directors Zoe Peate and David Ellwood took turns leading the group through a diverse musical repertoire. As if singing in careful harmony weren’t enough, the gentleman tackled actions unsuccessfully in a reluctant, bland arrangement of YMCA, which needed to be owned to be believed. Luckily, the boys came into their own in the second half of a Beach Boys medley with finger jabbing, elbow throwing and swaying. Catching excitement was never an issue, but, as with all a cappella groups, the tenors grappled with high, moving parts which become more difficult as the voice ages. These parts are crucial for a satisfying resolution to that ringing, dominant seventh chord – usually the highlight of vocal phrases – but a difficulty no doubt known in all barbershop circles. At times, the bass was lost in fluid sections – more percussive, loud, staccato sounds would have picked up these parts, particularly in ‘Barbara Ann’. There was a tendency to favour nice, sweet sounds over more instrumental, resounding notes, leaving the listener wondering if the Sussex Harmonisers have reached their full potential within a cappella.
The group are adept at phrasings, the collective breath well-rehearsed and sharp. This characteristic extended to the performance as a whole, which was measured out perfectly, balanced between fast and slow, upbeat and dreamy, chorus and quartets. Interspersed by jokes from members and introductions from impromptu MC Tam Large, whose enthusiasm was endearing, the night never hit a dull note. One highlight, besides the dynamic swells of ‘But You Don’t Know Me’ was the last featured quartet of the evening, who’s solid, organic performance of ‘Last Night Was the End of the World’ broke a few hearts. There are few things more uplifting than male voices in perfect harmony, and the Sussex Harmonisers were often angelic, energetic and capable in their renditions – never better than when given the opportunity to sing out, like on ‘Lovely Way to Spend an Evening’. This is Grease with your grandfather playing Danny, High Society with your favourite great uncles portraying Bing and Frank – highly entertaining, surprising and ingenious casting.