Around the world — at least this one — Voca People is one of Israel’s most popular vocal ensembles, if you judge by sold-out shows from Paris to Rio. Its members, however, would say they aren’t from Israel. Not even from Earth.
The a cappella octet dresses in all white and dons white bald wigs, white facial greasepaint and cherry-red lipstick. If it seems otherworldly, that’s the whole idea.
If you’re playing along, Voca People comes from the planet Voca, where music is the only form of communication. Its members have come to Earth on a mission to spread a musical message of joy.
They soon will be spreading that message in the Bay Area, launching a 12-day engagement at the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco June 5. As a bonus, Voca People will perform June 10 at Israel in the Gardens.
Like the Swingle Singers, Take 6 and Bobby McFerrin before them, Voca People stretches the limits of the human voice in replicating instrumental and percussive sounds.
Unlike those others groups, Voca People turns vocal performance into theater.
OK, they’re aren’t from the planet Voca. The group really is from Israel, as is the musical director and co-creator, Shai Fishman. He writes the musical arrangements, which glide effortlessly from Bach to be-bop to beat box.
“We set ourselves up for [something] most a cappella groups don’t have,” said Fishman from his home in Tel Aviv. “It had to have theater in it, a story, some way to get involved with the characters a little bit.”
He credits Voca People’s comic showmanship to co-creator Lior Kalfo, an actor, producer and former Israeli TV comedy writer. Kalfo carried around the idea of Voca People for years before approaching Fishman for help with the music.
“Right off the bat, I knew if this was to be special we had to do something special,” Fishman recalls of those early conversations with Kalfo. “That was to go directly to those classic songs.”
He means the first Voca People video, made for YouTube in March 2009 and dubbed “The History of Music in 5 Minutes.”
The eight singers and beat boxers, in full Voca regalia, zoomed through 27 tunes, from Gregorian chant to Scott Joplin to Little Richard and Michael Jackson, at warp speed. It became an Internet phenomenon, racking up more than 10 million views, and gave rise to a burning question, “Who are Voca People and where can I see them?”
At the time, the answer was: Nowhere.
“We had invitations for tours around the world, when we didn’t even have a show,” Fishman recalls. “All we had was the one clip.”
That limbo status didn’t last long. Fishman and Kalfo got financial backing, auditioned and assembled several touring companies of Voca People (not unlike Blue Man Group) and sent them around the world.
The group, winner of a 2012 Lucille Lortel Award for alternative theatrical experience, performs mostly medleys. The movie theme medley includes snippets from the James Bond and Pink Panther franchises, “Mission Impossible” and “E.T.” The classical medley features famous themes by Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.
They also try to rope in audience members, even to the point of getting some in the crowd up on stage for a bit of good-natured humiliation. No one has ever complained.
“We try to tell a story,” Fishman added, “and it’s a little harder to tell story with full song. The singers have to be vocal athletes, quick on their feet.”
In the past, demonstrators have turned out to protest when Israeli performing artists come to town, but Fishman said that has never been a problem for Voca People.
“One time, doing a tour in Brazil,” he recalled, “this guy called me and asked Why do we not represent the Israeli conflict. I gave him a very simple answer: It’s not what the show is about. It’s not about representing Israel and making Israel look good. The show was created in order to build bridges between cultures.”
Voca People performs June 5-17 at Marines’ Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter St., S.F. $35-$75. www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com or (415) 771-6900. The group also performs a short set at 1:45 p.m. June 10 at Israel in the Gardens.