“Tonight’s first rule is … If you know the words, sing along,” boomed a disembodied voice in the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) Friday night. “The second rule is … If you don’t know the words, sing along.”
That voice would soon find its body, along with seven more, but little else changed in the way of irreverence and tongue-in-cheekedness during the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra’s (WIUO) show. The group’s delightful Kiwi attitudes and accents caused enough crooked, halfway coherent ear-to-ear smiles to put an orthodontist into a fit.
The Ukulele Orchestra might not quite have been an orchestra when taking the quantity of musicians into account, nor did it possess the dour snootiness for which some orchestras are known to have. Instead, the group seemed to invite the audience to take part in its friendly jam session. It truly did extend an invitation, and it served to humanize the troupe, as if all the strangers in the hall were already in on its inside jokes. Th group told its humble origin story between songs, but it would have been easy to predict; a group of wacky friends started playing ukuleles together, and eventually began performing for increasingly filled venues. The rest is history.
It was not so much a polished musical act as it was a bunch of goofs who happened to be talented at performing. An actual orchestra composer would have been furious with the aesthetic presentation alone. The tone was set pretty accurately when all the uke-ists walked out like a mismatched throng of preschoolers. Some wore capes, some wore hats and shiny leggings. One wore her underwear on the outside. All assumptions about the direction things were headed were confirmed once the first few chords of “Afternoon Delight” were strummed. This exhibition of tiny stringed instruments and those who play them was not going to make any sense at all.
It didn’t, and that was OK.
If I had to come up with a theme for this show, I couldn’t. How does one throw covers of Dolly Parton, Britney Spears and the Kinks, not to mention some Mauri (New Zealand aboriginal) hymns, into a single classification? Sure, there were plenty of ukuleles, but everything was held together by a bass, maracas and a few excellent voices. It’s impossible to understand, let alone critique.
Who knows what goes on way down there in New Zealand. Is it a 1970 time capsule full of flower children, or a modern absurdist’s take on a comical utopia? Either way, it was successful in nurturing this charmingly adoptive family. The Orchestra kept the house engaged even when its setlist faltered. Whoops, hollers and whistles accompanied “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” even though, quite honestly, it was not a great choice for the ukulele, which, despite its universally pleasing sound, simply can’t take the place of the big electric notes of ’90s pop. Luckily, the hilarity of that particular spectacle masked its sonic shortcomings.
Other song choices fared much better. It’s hard to go wrong with crowd favorites like “Honky Tonk Women” or “Sunny Afternoon,” and it didn’t feel like pandering, either. The WIUO played through the good, the “meh” and the “huh?” unapologetically. If anyone expected some level of kitsch, they didn’t get it.
What exactly transpired Friday night? Something involving smiles and ukes, for sure. Hopefully WIUO comes back next year to give us another chance at wrapping our heads around it.