REVIEW: Straight No Chaser serves up intoxicating blend of holiday spirits in Iowa City

The a cappella ensemble Straight No Chaser brought its holiday blend to a sold out, cheering crowd at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Friday night. (Andrew Zaeh)
The a cappella ensemble Straight No Chaser brought its holiday blend to a sold out, cheering crowd at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Friday night. (Andrew Zaeh)

IOWA CITY — Straight No Chaser added a most welcome chaser to its Hancher mix Friday night. After an hour of silky smooth a cappella harmonies shaking up pop tunes and standards, the nine vocalists added nearly another hour of holiday favorites, turned upside down and inside out.

Vocal mash-ups are the hallmark of this wildly popular ensemble. Formed in 1996, Straight No Chaser rose out of Indiana University obscurity into a YouTube viral sensation in 2007 with its hilarious take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — laced with Toto’s “Africa,” half a dozen carols and a little dreidel. That led to a record deal and launched a professional journey that has the group selling out concerts far and wide.

The Hancher show sold out the day the tickets went on sale, and the multigenerational audience went wild with clapping, cheering and three standing ovations — all well-deserved.

The performers are as funny and charismatic as they are talented. Singing with no instrumental accompaniment is no easy feat, especially sustaining that through two hours of glorious harmonies and hijinks.

All the percussion sounds emanate from their voices, explaining, “We use no filler and no background, because we can’t afford the instruments.” They also encouraged the audience to post photos and videos on social media to save them money.

Dubbed “The Speakeasy Tour,” each half began with two cheeky videos featuring John Michael Higgins — instantly recognizable from his plethora of television and film roles, including commentator John Smith in the “Pitch Perfect” a cappella girl group movies. The first gave a zingy little history of Straight No Chaser, and the second added a tangy twist to “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” where “not a creature was stirring because we’d all taken muscle relaxers.”

The singers might need a few muscle relaxers after their workout — especially Jerome Collins, whose hip-hop moves on the Beyonce medley and Motown moves on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” brought down the house.


His truly shining moments, however, came in two of the most beautiful holiday hymns, “Mary Did You Know?” and the final encore of “O Holy Night.” Collins sang the lead on both songs, taking them to even more glorious heights through his soulful interpretations and stellar vocal gymnastics.

A kaleidoscope of lighting effects with sweeping beams and ever-changing videos on the backdrop enhanced the many moods of the music, beginning with animated record discs flying through the Eurythmics’ trippy “Sweet Dreams,” seguing seamlessly into Fitz and the Tantrums’ kicky “HandClap.”

Every song became a highlight, and short of mentioning them all, here are a few outstanding moments: “One Love,” with the mournful version of “Over the Rainbow” tucked inside; “Twisting the Night Away,” classed up by the guys twisting in tuxedos; “Hi-De-Ho,” jazzed up with vocal percussion and scat; the kick line in “Just a Gigolo”; hilarious lyric changes in the Disney medley (“How do they sing under the sea, without gurgling”); watching the guys attempt Beyonce’s choreography on “Crazy in Love/Single Ladies”; more kicky choreography on “The Christmas Can-Can”; the lowest of the low rumblings on “Mr. Grinch”; and thrilling tight harmonies on “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

And the piece de resistance: when they shot a video of the crowd cheering and waving, to send via social media to the patients and families at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

The entire evening stirred up an intoxicating blend of holiday spirits.

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