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'Music Man' quartet does more than 'Lida Rose'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2009 - The barbershop quartet struck a chord (or several) with the St. Louis audience at the opening night of "The Music Man" Monday. Cheers and whoops greeted the group's performance from the moment Professor Hill taught their characters how to harmonize "ice cream" on through the popular "Lida Rose."

Dapper in their straw hats and striped cummerbunds, the four skilled singers sent upbeat melodies like "It's You," "Goodnight Ladies" and "Sincere" up the hill to the free seats. The barbershop quartet provided a cheerful segue between character struggles, a smooth spot between conflicts and a colorful backdrop of Americana.

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The quartet -- Rick Knight (Ewart Dunlop, lead), Chris Hallam (Olin Britt, bass), Eric Dalbey (Oliver Hix, baritone) and Tim Waurick (Jacey Squires, tenor) -- are all members of the Ambassadors of Harmony, a local two-time International Champion barbershop chorus.

Although the Ambassadors mix in arrangements of new works, there's a certain nostalgia associated with Meredith Willson's classic score, a vivid slice of all-American pie that seems to connect Midwest audiences to the show and its characters. This local quartet -- with its big talent and humble attitude -- perfectly fits the modestly charming Midwestern sensibility. The warmth of sound and twinkling eyes of the four men as they beguile onlookers from one scene to the next indicate unabashed joy while performing.

Said Rick Knight: "The sound of the barbershop harmonies and the chords -- if you get somebody in to sing a bit with you, they're hooked pretty easily."

And, yes, there we were at the Muny, singing along.

Blowing back into town after its last performance in 2004, "The Music Man" will sing itself right into the heart of summer on July 20-26. The show is known for its popular score, with songs like "76 Trombones," "Til There Was You," (a song covered by The Beatles), and "Wells Fargo Wagon," and also for its fabulous and quirky barbershop quartet.

The Muny's barbershop quartet is made up of local performers who have all traveled the world competing and doing what they love best. Rick Knight has performed the role of Ewart Dunlop, lead quartet singer, twice before. But the others are rookies on the grand stage of St. Louis' Muny Opera, which was built as the Municipal Theatre in 1917. Even though three are making their Muny debut, all of the members of the quartet have performed around town for large audiences.

"We're all part of a group called The Ambassadors of Harmony," explains Eric Dalbey (Oliver Hix, baritone). "It's a 160-man barbershop chorus."

The Ambassadors of Harmony , which recently won the gold medal at the Barbershop Harmony Society's 71st annual international convention, performs twice a year at University of Missouri-St. Louis' Touhill Theatre. But the seven shows at the Muny, selling out to crowds of approximately 60,000 people, is quite a venue.

"It's a pretty big deal," says Chris Hallam (Olin Britt, bass).

The quartet says that barbershop music has actually drawn younger crowds and singers in recent years, partly, as Knight points out, because of the modern twists that have entered the genre. Gone are the days of straw boaters and striped vests; barbershop quartet clothing has modernized, as well as the music.

"Some of the most fun things that we've gotten to do is to take some contemporary songs and had them arranged for four voices," Hallam says.

Most recently, the group had the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" arranged to fit the barbershop style. Because of the nature of the harmonies in the song, Hallam explains, the arrangement worked very well and appealed to the crowds as well as the singers.

"I think that songs like that, that we can take from contemporary times and pull them into our style, tend to be audience favorites because they know the songs and it's a little more entertaining than just, 'Coney Island Baby' or whatever," explains Hallam.

Speaking of younger crowds, the majority of the members of this quartet are under the age of 30, and have been singing barbershop for many years. Tim Waurick (Jacey Squires, tenor) began singing barbershop at 13, an age at which many American boys are picking up guitars and video games. Surprisingly, he says he was in good company in those days.

"We had probably about 50, 50 to 55, younger guys, between the ages of 12 and 18," Waurick explains.

Waurick says that he was hooked on barbershop music from the very beginning. And Knight explains that barbershop music has somewhat of an addictive quality.

"The sound of the barbershop harmonies and the chords, if you get somebody in to sing a bit with you, they're hooked pretty easily," says Knight.

"The Music Man" will give local audiences a taste of that addiction.

Solange Deschatres is a freelance writer. 

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