The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain returned to the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College for an evening of irreverent cheekiness and masterful strumming.
The audience in Yardley Hall on Sunday reacted to the group’s seasoned jokes with appreciative laughter, and cheered and clapped as they recognized the tunes adeptly arranged for the seven-member ensemble.
Now in their 30th year, the Ukes have taken the comic aspects and musical capabilities of the ukulele and molded them into a well-honed act, delivered with marvelous nonchalance and impressive versatility.
In their hands the ukulele was a vehicle for all genres, from rock to pop, jazz standards to movie themes, doo-wop to punk. They played the full spectrum of instruments from soprano to bass, making a variety of tones by strumming, plucking, scraping, even beating on the body of the instrument for percussive effects. Founder George Hinchliffe also brought out a tiny novelty instrument smaller than his hand as well as an electric cigar box model that created delicious feedback effects on the punk tunes.
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They all sang, too, abetted by virtuosic whistling from bass ukulele player Jonty Bankes, and each brought a different sensibility, whether from founder Kitty Lux’s overly serious presentation, Peter Brooke Turner’s stentorian tones, or Leisa Rea’s dry delivery and enthusiastic singing.
They introduced the songs with a subversive bantering shtick (soprano player and resident head banger David Suich introduced Richie Williams’ solo and then shushed the applauding crowd, saying: “Don’t clap. You haven’t heard him yet.”), and these jokes continued in the music, as when they evolved a discussion of English folk song archivist Cecil Sharp into a rendition of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” substituting Sharp’s name in the backing vocals and inserting a Shakespearean “hey nonino.”
Clearly, the Ukulele Orchestra was having fun and enjoyed sharing that silliness with the audience, playing the infectious “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
Their medleys were perhaps their most impressive feats, layering lyrics from disparate sources over a chord progression. In the encore, after jesting they couldn’t agree what to play, they mashed together “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Killing Me Softly” and more, each voice entering on a different tune over top of Hinchliffe playing George Frideric Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G Minor.
A plucky “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” ended the show with a shouted “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear.”