Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain delivers covers and comedy

by Savannah Miller | 4/24/18 2:20am


Eight ukulele players walk onto a stage. It sounds like the setup to a bad musical joke, but on Saturday, a sold-out crowd packed Spaulding Auditorium to see the the eight strummers of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

I walked into Spaulding with high expectations for Great Britain’s premier ukulele octet, and I was not disappointed.

The Orchestra was founded in 1985 as “a bit of fun,” according to their website, and continues to sell out shows 33 years later. The group’s spring tour is planned to go as far south as Georgia before heading back across the pond to Scotland.

The members of the orchestra bring diverse musical backgrounds to the group. Original members Dave Suich and Richie Williams have fronted their own bands, while newer member Leisa Rea honed her comedy chops writing for television. By themselves, the members of the orchestra have a lifetime’s worth of recognition in the arts. Together, they create a comedic musical powerhouse.

The orchestra opened the show with “Holiday for Strings,” an American classic written in 1942 and a surprisingly serious choice of opener. What followed was a diverse and entertaining concert delivering pop, rock and country hits, including “Limehouse Blues,” popularized by Django Reinhart, and the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”

The variety of ukuleles represented on stage added to the group’s well-rounded sound. There were three sopranos, a tenor, two baritone ukuleles, a concert ukulele and a bass ukulele, which was used by Jonty Bankes throughout the performance to provide rhythm.

But the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain does more than play the ukulele. Every member of the orchestra sings and delivers one-liners that keep the audience in stitches. One of the best gags of the night came from veteran ukulele orchestra player Suich, who informed one of the women in the front of his concert that she was the lucky recipient of some wonderful orchestra merchandise: a signed picture of Suich’s finger and two ukulele picks made from his hotel room key.

Occasionally, the ukulele pickers even dance. At one point, Ewan Wardrop took a break during his performance of a country folk tune to bust a few moves on the side of the stage, spinning on his shoulders on the floor and striking a pose.

When he returned to his seat, fellow orchestra member Will Grove-White joked, “You were doing okay until you fell.”

The repertoire of the orchestra ranged from classical Italian pieces to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” The orchestra at once catered to the range of musical interests in the crowd and showed off their versatility.

My favorite song of the night was sung by Leisa Rea, who gave an emotional rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Another great moment came when Suich launched into Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” and the entire orchestra of ukuleles and chorus of players contributed harmony behind him.

A key component of the orchestra’s performances is its ability to combine songs from different genres into one cohesive tune. The third song of the set was a mashup built around David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” supplemented with bits from Stevie Wonder’s popular rendition of “For Once in My Life” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Later on, the group performed one of their classic pieces, called “Fly Me Off the Handel.” The song combines Sinatra’s version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” Andy Williams’s “Love Story,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and other classics over a melody created by George Friedrich Handel. The orchestra has an uncanny ability to hear common threads in strikingly different songs and combine them into elegant pieces, a talent that can only come from years of experience they have in the musical world.

The group also has a knack for taking a song across genres to give it a different feel. Ben Rouse took the Bob Dylan song “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and gave it a devilish twist with an accent reminiscent of Count Dracula.

Just before the end of the first act, the orchestra invited anyone in the audience who had brought their own ukulele to the concert to play along with them, a strum-along that has become a staple of their performances. The orchestra and its fans launched into The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles,” using sheet music provided in the program.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain managed to be simultaneously serious and funny. Their refined talent and exceptional vocal and comedic abilities shone through the entire 90-minute long performance along with genuine love for their pint-sized instruments.