The show must go on, at least on TV

While this year’s performances have been canceled, Limited Edition and two other groups star in PBS documentary to air next week that features last year’s Acapocalypse concert at Port High, portrays school as birthplace of contemporary a cappella movement

PORT WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL’S Limited Edition performed on its home stage during last year’s Acapocalypse concert, which is featured in the PBS Wisconsin documentary “Acapocalypse! A Cappella’s New Note” that will air next week. Photo by Robert Tyree
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Spring is usually the highlight of the year for members of Port Washington High School’s Limited Edition.

The a cappella group had planned to compete in the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A Cappella Midwest semifinals at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee last weekend, then fly this week to California to join some of the best a cappella groups and arrangers in the nation at a music festival before returning home in time to host its Acapocalypse festival April 4 and perhaps compete in the Varsity Vocals championship in New York City later in the month.

Those events, of course, have all been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but one show will go on, albeit on TV.

PBS Wisconsin next week will premiere “Acapocalypse! A Cappella’s New Note,” an hour-long documentary featuring last school year’s Limited Edition ensemble and a cappella groups from Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School in Galesville and Milwaukee High School of the Arts.

Early indications are that the show will debut to a large audience. A trailer from the documentary featuring Limited Edition that was posted to Facebook March 7 had more than 19,000 views and been shared more than 200 times as of last week, something PBS Wisconsin Multimedia Producer Colin Crowley attributes to the strength and longevity of the Port High a cappella program.

“Those are pretty good numbers for a short video of a high school a cappella group,” Crowley said. “Most of that comes from the a cappella culture in Port Washington and in Wisconsin, and it speaks volumes about the community of supporters around Port Washington High School’s music program.”

The documentary borrows its name from Port High’s Acapocalypse music festival and concert, which is apt since the program culminates with footage of the three groups it features performing during last year’s concert.

The documentary also begins at Port High, which is portrayed as the birthplace of the contemporary high school a cappella movement in the Midwest.

Speaking of Port High Vocal Director Dennis Gephart, who introduced a cappella music to the school in 2001, Crowley said, “Dennis is probably too modest to say this, but Port Washington High School really started this movement.”

Gephart said he saw a cappella music as a way to breathe life into a music program that was focused on choral music.

“I challenged students to open their minds to it and understand what a cappella is all about,” Gephart said.

At one point in the documentary, cameras cut away from a rehearsal to Gephart, who explains that his effort to introduce a cappella to the school was greeted with excitement.

“The kids were coming to me asking to learn the parts rather than me asking them, ‘Hey, come in. You’ve got to learn this part,’” he says during the program.

The PBS project began in 2018 when Crowley was searching for a group to feature in its high school concert series and turned to the Wisconsin School Music Association for a recommendation.

“They said, ‘You’ve got to check out this guy Dennis Gephart and his school’s Acapocalypse concert,’” he said. 

Crowley did just that by visiting the school and sitting in on a rehearsal. To demonstrate for him how a cappella music is created, Limited Edition chose a popular song and in minutes created their own a cappella rendition of it.

“You’re sitting in this room with 15 kids who create this wall of sound that just washes over you — it gives you goose bumps,” he said. “Going in, I wasn’t really familiar with the genre, but I was a convert at that point.”

What began as a high school concert episode evolved into a documentary that in addition to showing the finished product illustrates the creative process by which a cappella music is created. And with essentially unfettered access to members of Limited Edition and the other high school groups, which were included in the documentary because they were invited to participate in Port High’s Acapocalypse, the program taps into the experience of being an a cappella performer.

“He (Crowley) wants people to really feel what it’s like to be a member of an a cappella group and what it’s like to be on stage,” Gephart said.

Crowley and camera crews spent days at Port High and the two other high schools featured in the documentary last school year filming rehearsals and interviewing students.

One of those students was Port High’s Regan Surges, who describes a cappella in the documentary by saying, “It’s new and it’s exciting. It’s definitely something that’s experimental. It’s growing all the time. It’s changing all the time.”

Surges, who graduated last year and is studying music and vocal performance at Belmont University in Nashville, is home in Port taking online classes during the shutdown.

“I’m super excited to see the documentary,” she said in an interview. “We’re used to being on stage, but it was a whole different thing to have a camera in your face then see yourself on TV.”

The documentary, she noted, will introduce thousands of people to the musical genre that has been so important to her. 

“I’m excited that people who have no idea what a cappella music is will get to see it and how it’s made,” she said. “I talk to people about it and it’s hard to explain a cappella and how important it’s been in my life.”

Referring the 2012 film about a female college a cappella group, Surges said, “People say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen “Pitch Perfect,”’ but a cappella is so much more than that.”

The documentary seeks to illustrate that point and the role Port High and Gephart have played in cultivating the a cappella movement in the Midwest, Crowley said.

“I think Limited Edition is in its 18th year,” Surges said. “That’s a really long time, and Mr. Gephart has been there for every step in the evolution of a cappella.

“People talk about the great a cappella groups in California and even Florida, but the Midwest has a lot of really talented groups as well and we created a festival (Acapocalypse) to showcase that talent.”

As exciting as the debut of the documentary is — just days ahead of what would have been this year’s Acapocalypse concert —  it’s bittersweet for current members of Limited Edition, Gephart said. 

“It would have been great if we were actually able to host Acapocalypse this year,” he said. “It’s devastating for the kids currently in Limited Edition that we can’t.

“You spend February, March and April building up for all these performances only to have them canceled. I think the kids are in a state of shock and extreme disappointment because they won’t have these opportunities.”

Although “Acapocalypse! A Cappella’s New Note” will premiere on PBS Wisconsin on Tuesday, March 31, it will not air, at least immediately, in the Milwaukee market. Instead, local viewers will be able to watch it beginning Monday, March 30, on-demand at pbswisconsin.org and on the PBS app  on multiple devises including phones, tablets, Roku and many smart TVs.

A trailer of the documentary can be seen at www.facebook.com/watch/?v=190694802345601.

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