Da Vinci's Notebook fills doctor's prescription
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., February 16, 2003) – Da Vinci’s Notebook arrived at the Berkshire Museum on Saturday night with a tonic tailor-made for one of the coldest nights of a very cold winter: equal parts talent, wit and pure entertainment. Add to that formula plenty of audience interactivity, and the a cappella quartet did much to relieve the stress – if only for a few hours – audience members were undoubtedly feeling amid warnings to prepare for terrorist attacks with duct tape.

Duct tape was a running gag throughout the evening, just one of several that made the show sparkle with spontaneity from beginning to end. From the moment the singers took the stage in the museum’s auditorium, they did as much as they could to break down the artificial wall separating performer and audience, picking on latecomers who would become the butt of non-stop jokes and riffing, leaping into the audience to talk directly to concertgoers, and staging two, lengthy audience participation skits replete with parting gifts.

All this shtick would have been just that if the group didn’t back it up with solid material, solidly performed. And for the most part, they did. In original songs, renditions of popular tunes, and parodies of old favorites, the vocalists did plenty to show off their a cappella muscles. They harmonized, they mimicked musical instruments and sound effects, they interjected commentary and puns, and they delivered their numbers with choreographed and unchoreographed gestures and movements, often at a dizzying pace that made for a dizzying but enjoyable display.

In songs including “Liposuction” and “The Gates,” as in Microsoft’s Bill, the group skewered contemporary cultural trends with satirical finesse. They also drew on their own identities and foibles, good-naturedly poking fun at their expanding bellies and making the most of their diverse backgrounds, with plenty of Chinese jokes at the expense of Richard Hsu (including a hilarious parody of the theme to “Secret Agent Man” rendered as “Secret Asian Man,” calling accused Chinese-American spy Wen Ho Lee the “Chinese Austin Powers on a mission from Chairman Mao”) and Latino commentary aimed at Bernie Muller-Thym, who claimed Hispanic descent.

The group’s ingenious wordplay included rhyming “Ethiopian” with “fallopian” on a song about the TV heroine Ally McBeal, sung to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” A boy-band parody, “Title of the Song,” a by-the-numbers piece delivered with great aplomb by Greg “Storm” DiCostanza, featured perfectly generic music and lyrics almost wholly devoted to generic descriptions of the phrases that should appear at that part of the song: “enumeration of my various transgressions,” “renunciation of my past insensitivity,” “request for reconciliation,” “naïve expression of love.”

The group explored its ribald side late in the second set to allow families to remove their children, although despite repeated warnings, none seemed to take them up on the offer. And in spite of their titles and subject matter, “Internet Porn” and “Enormous Penis” really weren’t too risque or offensive.

The group, nominally led by congenial frontman Paul Sabourin, also played it straight on a few numbers, including a medley of Motown hits like “Get Ready,” “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” allowing the singers to flex their doo-wop muscles, and a version of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” featuring Muller-Thym’s soulful growl.

Probably the highlights for most concertgoers were the two “Request-o-Rama” portions of the show, in which the group opened its program to audience suggestions. On the spur of the moment, they sang and danced to songs including Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” The requests weren’t totally inspired, but they offered enough of a challenge to keep things interesting.

While always entertaining, the group’s vocal arrangements weren’t the most demanding. They emphasized harmony singing for the most part, as opposed to the musical effects patented by groups like The Bobs. But the jokes and repartee flew fast and furious and virtually non-stop, and for many if not most in the sold-out crowd, that’s just what the doctor ordered.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 18, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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