PLAINS TOWNSHIP — “I wanted to be part of this so much,” Michala Dennis said earlier this week during a rehearsal break. “I fell in love with the sound, and I said, ‘I’ll cross dress. I’ll wear a loose shirt.’ “
But there’s no need for the enthusiasatic 16-year-old from Courtdale to disguise herself as a boy.
Last summer the Nashville-based International Barbershop Harmony Society changed its bylaws to admit female members, and since then the local Wyoming Valley Barbershop Harmony Chorus has eagerly welcomed Dennis and three other women to join their ranks.
“I think our sound has changed,” said co-director Phil Brown of Shavertown. “It is bigger, it is brighter, and believe it or not, it’s easier to get a woman to smile when she’s singing than it is to get a man to do that.”
There seemed to be smiles all around on Monday evening as the 30-voice chorus practiced its a capella harmony for “Love At Christmas,” a seasonal concert set for 2 p.m. Dec. 9 at Sts. Peter and Paul Church on Hudson Road in Plains Township. Admission is $5 at the door.
“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,” they sang, luxuriously drawing out the name “Vixen” as they launched into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,” they continued. “But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?”
Soon long-time choral member Lou Volpetti, of Pittston, and friend-of-the-chorus Joe Piskorik, of West Wyoming, were enhancing the number, pantomiming the roles of Rudolph and Santa.
“This is so much fun,” new member Sarah Lechak, 17, of Pringle said later, after the group had rehearsed “Jingle Bells” and “Toyland,” too.
“It’s so relaxed and informal compared to other groups I sing with (at school and church),” Lechak said. “We can dance and smile at the audience.”
Lechak’s enthusiasm for public singing goes back to a preschool performance, when none of the other children remembered the words to a song they’d prepared so she climbed off the riser, approached the microphone and sang a solo.
But barbershop harmony is a new venture for Lechak, Dennis and 17-year-old JoAnn Mangan of Swoyersville, all Wyoming Valley West High School students who have joined some of their male schoolmates as well as gentlemen a generation or two older in the Barbershop Harmony chorus.
“You can learn life lessons from them,” 15-year-old Ben Bowen, of Forty Fort, said of singing with the older men, “and the way they harmonize together is just beautiful.”
New member Marian Holehan, 62, a recently retired dietitian from Tunkhannock, is also grateful for the opportunity to join in the harmony.
“I’ve always wanted to make music with just my voice,” she said. “A capella is amazingly challenging, and I like to be challenged.”
In other groups Holehan has sung as a second soprano “and we have the melody. Here I’m singing tenor, and that’s not the melody, so that’s another challenge.”
While Dennis and Mangan also are singing tenor, Lechak is singing lead (melody). The baritones and basses are all male.
The local chorus has existed for 66 years, and the four-part-harmony style of barbershop singing has appeared in such movies as “Music Man” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” as well as the television show “The Office.” Still, chorus member John Szeghy, 74, of West Pittston said, more people need to be introduced to it.
“After concerts I always hear people say, number one, ‘I never knew that existed,’ and number two, ‘we’ve never had such an enjoyable time.’ “
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT