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The Toons: How to Conquer an Audience

When the Men Fail, the Women Still Do the Job

By Devdoot Majumdar

The MIT/Wellesley Toons


May 1, 8 p.m.

The musical repertoire of your average a cappella group has been, in short, sampled to oblivion. The Stevie covers, the Britney covers, the bubble-gum 80’s covers -- it’s all fun and games for the Class of 2007, but for people like me, it ranks up there with other lame MIT traditions (i.e., “In Stereo”).

Fittingly enough, the MIT/Wellesley Toons provide a delicious counterpoint to your standard a cappella group. Their concerts don’t have the feel of “bathtime with Tori Amos” nor do they have the tawdry overtones of a Top 40 showdown.

The Toons do well by performing songs that captivate the audience -- some of them are hits, some of them are woefully unknown. But as refreshing as their song selection might be, what makes the Toons MIT’s premiere a cappella group are some of their stunning arrangements and some of their equally stunning voices.

Spring concerts are known to be the last hurrah for some of these stunning voices, as they are essentially farewell concerts for seniors. With 2004, the Toons see the departure of, among others, MIT vocalists Nikhila Deo ’04, and Neelima Teerdhala ’04; and Wellesley vocalists Claire Gross, Heather Macdonald, and Kieran Pechter.

The evening, though generally enjoyable, certainly demonstrated a marked discrepancy among the Toons’ singers. It’s fair to say that the women of the Toons heartily outsing the men. Thankfully, the coarser, off-pitch vocals delivered by some of these guys were more forgettable than memorably bad. In light of some of the more mesmerizing moments of the evening (read: the female solos) and some amusing skits, The Toons managed to end the evening without losing their belt as reigning a cappella champions.

We’ll start with the forgettable. Ryan Manuel ’04 brought to 10-250 one of the more unknown songs from “The Lion King,” Scar’s “Be Prepared.” He brought what little life could be brought to the song, and in so doing, replaced any campiness for pure, unbridled cheesiness. For all of the red lighting in the world, nothing could salvage the minutes of vocal blandness and choreographed “excitement.” This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the cartoon themes of the The Toons, only that, if they were going to go Lion King this concert, at least do “Circle of Life.”

Other male vocal misdirections include the droning of Patrick Y. Kim ’04 in “Roll to Me,” and the mumbling of Lee-Kai M. Wang ’07 in “Hackensack,” a Fountains of Wayne song.

All in all, it is tough to apply any metric to MIT performances. You can’t judge them with the “American Idol” scale because if they were that good, they wouldn’t be here. So, I’ve kind of settled on a scale of my own. Sometimes, I like to sit in the the Student Center on Friday nights. If you sit in the middle of the fourth floor, you can hear all three competing Christian groups singing, tambourines and all. Quite frankly, they aren’t half bad.

One Toon male-led song, “72 Hour Daze” by Taxiride and led by Manuel, made it past the gospel cutoff. With an elaborately layered arrangement and solid vocals from the entire group, the song served as a stepping-stone toward the better half of the evening: female solos.

Deo delivered her cherished solo, “I’m Not an Addict” by Kay’s Choice. The Toons pushed it along as the song culminated in only a slightly laborious process. Deo’s emphatic refrains and powerful delivery of the song’s bridge earned both singer and group high praise from the audience. Most notably, her occasional outbursts of sass countered her sometimes childlike vocals and gave a bit of veracity to the phrase, “I’m not an addict.”

Wellesley senior Kieran Pechter bid the group farewell with two songs: Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere to Me” and ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.” Her voice, unremarkable in its strength perhaps, stands out by virtue of its uncanny likeness to some New York City Village folk singer. Though “Everywhere to Me” was rushed and drained of some of its sincerity, “Voices Carry” rang of Aimee Mann, the song’s original singer. Sweet and wide-ranging, Pechter’s voice is truly a refreshing element for any a cappella group.

Teerdhala also delivered an exquisite -- if a bit Broadway-esque -- performance of Dido’s “All You Want.” But at a time when too many a cappella groups take the Brian Adams approach to singing, and with a group called The Toons, a little Broadway doesn’t hurt, even when it’s Dido they’re covering.

Teerdhala’s showstopping performance was only outdone only by Wellesley sophomore Ji Lim’s outstanding “Waiting Under the Waves,” by Kris Delmhorst. Sporting an enchantingly silky voice, Lim’s vocals are as beguilingly commanding as they are emotionally ripe. The song captured The Toons at their best, spotlighting a singular vocalist and a group that skillfully enhanced the song. Never have I seen an audience so moved by a cappella as with Li’s amazing performance.

The true triumph of a cappella is when a group can sing some unknown song so well that you go and download the song only to realize you like the a cappella version better. The Toons have achieved this time and again, with their spotless performances as soloists and as a group. As with their last concert and their brief stint at Bad Taste, The Toons, despite some inevitable falterings, have done it again.