Highlands Voices and Stay Tuned face off on Lifetime docuseries
Credit: Lifetime

Pitch Slapped

Between Pitch Perfect (original, sequel, upcoming three-quel), The Sing-Off, and Glee, a capella groups and singing competitions have moved from college campuses and auditoriums firmly into the pop culture sphere. Lifetime’s new docuseries, Pitch Slapped, enters that same making-music-with-your mouths fray, putting two rival New Jersey a capella groups head to head over the course of eight weeks.

Each team — Stay Tuned, of Cherry Hill, and Highlands Voices, of Allendale — gets an expert coach to help them. Stay Tuned gets paired with Deke Sharon, who describes himself as “just an overgrown choir nerd who’s trying to change the world” and has done arrangements for the Pitch Perfect films and The Sing-Off. Rebel Wilson’s a fan, too. Highlands Voices gets put under the direction of Diana Preisler, “the best a capella performance coach in the country” and a Broadway veteran who also sings in her own a capella group, Blue Jupiter.

Each group also gets a story line that could have been ripped straight from the “Here’s what you missed on Glee” intros. Stay Tuned is the underdog team that’s scrappy but has a lot of heart, while Highlands Voices has gotten too comfortable — they’re good enough to win regional competitions but can’t place at nationals. And Deke and Diana go way back, so the rivalry runs between them as well as their teams.

Here’s how the competitions will shake out: The summer season is eight weeks long, and the first four weeks are regular competitions and the final four are the invitational and elimination rounds, where the team with the lowest score each week will be out. Only one team can be crowned the Summer Invitational champion.

Deke and Diana start the episode by getting to know their respective groups. At Stay Tuned’s HQ, Deke asks his group to sing so he can hear what they can do and what they do well. They choose an arrangement of “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, with a solo from a girl named Nicole and some pretty harmonies behind her. Deke applauds politely when they’re done, but away from them he’s blunt: Nicole and another girl named Ashley have potential, but at this point he doesn’t think the group has any particular strengths. Plus, Stay Tuned has 21 members — more of a choir than an a capella group, he says. It would be much easier to win if their numbers were cut in half, but Deke won’t do it. “They’re a big, chaotic, messy family,” he says, and you don’t break up a family.

Deke gives it to Stay Tuned straight: Highlands Voices is better than them in pretty much every way. They have better soloists, a better beatboxer, better choreography. But, if you couldn’t see this coming a mile away, this team has more heart. Nicole can’t even talk about what the group means to her without crying and making some of her teammates cry, too. Deke wants them to use that in their music, and he decides they’ll sing Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” for their first song. It’s got no solos, it’s just pure singing and requires pure emotion.

Diana also gets Highlands Voices singing right away: They choose Bea Miller’s “Young Blood” and she sees potential in a few singers: Vanessa, Maddie, and a guy named Blue. She tells them their first competition is just four days away — and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re going up against Stay Tuned and Deke. So it’s personal, and she wants to win. (Or she wants them to win. What’s the difference, right?)

She wants them to take Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be” to the first week’s competition, which is four days away. Currently, Vanessa — a senior with curly red hair and Broadway aspirations — sings solo, but Diana says that she’s on autopilot and isn’t connecting to the music. So she tells Vanessa she’ll have to re-audition against Maddie to see who gets the part. The get a night to prepare and while Maddie does well, Diana decides to stay with Vanessa — but before they can start rehearsal Vanessa informs the coach she and another student need to leave early. She goes off on them, and another student, Andrew, questions why she’s being so harsh on a group of high school kids: “I think you want to beat Deke more than you want us to beat Stay Tuned.” She asks if they want to lose, and assures the cameras there’s a method to her madness. Both girls still leave, and Vanessa still keeps that solo (sorry, Maddie).

Deke decides to take a risk with Stay Tuned’s performance: While the judges’ scores are split into equal thirds for arrangements, performance, and choreography, he decides he wants them to do the whole song standing completely still, just holding their mics, so they can really connect with the music. They don’t seem to be getting it, so he leaves, but the group stays behind and practices everything he taught them about dynamics and creating a unified sound until they get it right.

Diana, meanwhile, is giving her team precise choreography. To help get Highlands Voices in fighting shape, she brings them to the track and tells them to run a few laps, which is met with the reaction you’d expect (“to be completely honest, I will pull something,” one student says). But she’s got a point: If you’re dancing on stage and you get winded, can you still sing in tune? Probably not! So they jog and do jumping jacks while singing.

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On competition day, Highlands Voices go before the judges first. Vanessa sounds great, the choreography looks good, they’re all coordinated in black and white outfits. The whole audience (I don’t know if you’d call it a crowd? It’s hard to tell how big the auditorium is) is cheering and clapping along. You can even see Diana and her giant necklace dancing it out in the wings. But Deke didn’t think they captured the essence of the song, (“When they sang ‘Rather Be,’ it was clear there was a place they’d rather be” — ha, get it? – “You could see it in their eyes, the joy was not in their voices. They were hitting their marks,” he said, touching his chest, “but not hitting their hearts.”)

Stay Tuned goes on next, with their all black costumes and non-choreography. After Deke’s lessons in dynamics, they start soft and build as the song does, up to a crescendo that gets applause from the audience before quieting down again to finish. It’s a much different sort of performance, but it pulls together everything they learned that week.

Then the teams come out on stage again for the judges to read the scores. Out of a possible 30, Highlands Voices got 23 for difficulty of vocal arrangement to Stay Tuned’s 25. For vocal performance, it was 24 to 25. On visual performance (a.k.a. choreography), the scores were 22 to…..11. So Deke’s master vision didn’t pan out so well. That gave the win to Highlands Voices, but there are still seven more weeks of competition to go — and, Highland Voices note, their rivals still beat them in two of the three categories.

Next week will bring another episode and another competition. There’s not a ton of nuance here — one team is big and the other is small! they’ve got talent, these guys have heart! — but the kids are talented and the premise is fun.

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Pitch Slapped
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