VERSAILLES — Say “barbershop singing,” and what comes to mind?
The smooth sound and corny jokes of the Barbershop Harmony Society? The red and white stripe-shirted, arm-gartered quartet in the musical, “The Music Man?” Five, very hip teens from west central Ohio?
Wait — what? Barbershop and teens? Do they really mix?
Yes, they do — in The Quintessentials, an ensemble of five young men from Versailles who took top honors in the 2016 Ohio Has Talent competition in Van Wert and have been invited to audition for “America’s Got Talent,” the NBC television show.
Local audiences can see them in two concerts, Saturday, Aug. 12, at 3 and 7 p.m., in the Versailles Performing Arts Center at Versailles High School. Tickets cost $5.50 and are available at TowneAndCountryPlayers.com. Proceeds from the performances will help to fund a trip to AGT Florida auditions in early November.
But concert-goers shouldn’t expect to hear “Lida Rose” or “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” Isaac Buschur, Quincy Baltes, Kyle Wuebker, Brody Hyre and Mitchell Rawlins have moved barbershop’s close harmonies into the nostalgic songs of the 1950s and ’60s made famous by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys and the Jackson Five. Those and some by Billy Joel will comprise the Aug. 12 programs.
Buschur, 19, is a sophomore at Wright State University Lake Campus. Baltes, 19, is a sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Rawlins, 19, is a sophomore and Hyer, 18, a freshman at Capital University. Wuebker, 17, son of Sarah and Alan Wuebker, is a senior at Versailles High School. All the men were in high school when the group formed in 2015.
“Mitchell and Kyle and I went to a summer music camp at Ohio Northern University,” said Hyre. They took a class in barbershop music.
“We fell in love with it. We knew we had to bring it home,” Hyer said. They asked Baltes to join them and the four began to sing together, but when one of the songs they wanted to do had a fifth part, they approached Buschur. Rawlins, a composition major, began to write a fifth voice into the four-part pieces in their repertoire and the quartet became a quintet.
It didn’t take long for them to discover the doo-wop ditties popular in mid-century America.
“True barbershop is full of tight, strange chords,” Buschur said. “It might be harder than what we’re doing now.”
But it wasn’t the difficulty of the music that pushed the ensemble into pop tunes.
“The culture and color of America changed,” Rawlins said. The very 21st-century teens have found their niche in the music beloved by their grandparents. Nostalgia radio sends them scuttling to find or create arrangements.
“Someone will say, ‘Hey, I heard this song on the radio. Let’s check it out,” he added. Recently, the five have begun to rehearse some newer pieces, including “Go the Distance,” as performed by Vocal Spectrum. That one, they decided, was too good in four voices to change, so Buschur doubles on the bass part. Baltes sings baritone; Rawlins, second tenor; Hyer, bass; and Wuebker, first tenor and countertenor.
Wuebker’s ability to hit high notes motivates many of the song choices.
It was one thing to rehearse when the teens were all at the same high school. Being miles — and in the case of Baltes, several states — apart from each other has created major rehearsal challenges to overcome. When the quintet, as winners of the 2016 Ohio Has Talent competition, were invited to perform during the 2017 contest, they had to rehearse separately and put their performance together in a day right before their appearance in Van Wert.
“They sent me recordings of my part,” Baltes, then in Georgia, said. He devised the choreography and shared videos of it with his songmates.
Their final product can be seen on YouTube. That’s where someone purportedly from the “America’s Got Talent” franchise saw the group.
“At one point last November, they emailed Isaac,” Rawlins said. Someone named Destiny said she was a casting agent for “America’s Got Talent” and if the group could provide a phone number, they’d get a call about auditioning.
“I called the others. I even got Kyle out of class,” Buschur said. Hyre admitted to sinking to the floor when he heard the news. Their euphoria was short-lived, however.
Buschur sent back a phone number, but even after they followed up with several email inquiries, they did not hear again from Destiny. They did, however, decide to take their chances at the public auditions and have been working on several pieces from which to choose for that performance.
“We were planning to audition with “Uptown Girl,” but our arrangement mirrors Billy Joel’s. So we want one that suits us best,” Rawlins said.
“It’ll be a song that really hits,” Hyer noted. It may turn out to be a tune that gets a surprise reaction from the crowd, Aug. 12. Because the singers are so young, they are surprised when an audience erupts in applause mid-song.
“There are sections of songs we don’t know were iconic,” Rawlins admitted.
Because they haven’t selected a song to audition with, they also haven’t decided whether to sing a cappella or with some kind of accompaniment. Each singer also plays an instrument in performances, and sometimes, they’ll sing to backing tracks. The availability of a score for accompaniment determines whether on not they sing with instrumental support or without.
All five men have eclectic tastes when it comes to listening to music. Classical, swing, jazz, rock, contemporary all get mentioned when they talk about their what they like. It’s harder for each to name his favorite to perform.
“‘Bye, Bye, Baby’ — that’s my favorite because I hit crazy high notes,” Wuebker said.
“‘Irish Blessing,’” said Hyer. “We haven’t done it in a long time.” Rawlins’s choice is based on its difficulty.
“‘Go the Distance.’ That’s because it’s quite possibly the hardest song we’ve ever tried to do. I appreciate every time we get to perform it, rehearse it. It’s very meaningful to me,” he said.
“I’m super excited for ‘My Heart Will Go On,’” said Baltes. “We’re doing an arrangement that’s ’60s doo-wop. It’s going to be really fun.”
Buschur named the “Jersey Boys” medley that won them the Van Wert contest, “because it’s a crowd-pleaser,” he noted.
They all recognize that tackling “America’s Got Talent” is a big challenge, but they’re eager to take it on. They have overcome obstacles before, including, as Rawlins noted, “some pretty crippling self-doubt. There were people in our grade who not only didn’t like the music we sang, but really hated that we were a group.”
“I think it was very difficult for Versailles to have a group like this,” Buschur added. Baltes attributes that to the traditionalism of the small town.
“People are apprehensive to accept anything new,” he said.
The group was quick to acknowledge that despite negative reactions from some, others in their hometown provided and still provide lots of support. School officials, teachers and other adults are behind them all the way.
“My hope is that something good comes out of ‘America’s Got Talent,’” said Wuebker. “I want it to keep going, get bigger.”
His fellow songsters agree.
“I think it would be really cool if we could make a living out of doing this,” Buschur said.
Rawlins was direct and succinct.
“I hope we keep singing — forever,” he said.