The singing equivalent of “Stomp,” “You Say What I Mean but What You Mean Is Not What I Said” is a melange of song and sound from the group known as Hot Mouth. Despite its mouthful title and less than authoritative direction, “You Say” is an inventive mix of blues, jazz, folk and rap, performed a cappella by this appealing five-member company.
Conceived and composed by cellist Grisha Coleman, “You Say” leans toward the performance-art end of the theatrical spectrum. The group (self-described as “bad-ass masters of vocalogy”) celebrates cultural community without storyline or dialogue. Instead, the performers mix invented language and odd sounds with folk and jazz rhythms as they move sinuously around Classic Stage Company’s large, thrust space.
Kevin Cunningham’s conventionally sleek set includes a shallow, fire-engine-red platform and a red wooden ramp leading down to the main playing area, where spectators sit at cabaret-style tables. Kevin Adams’ lighting often douses the stage with red and other dense colors.
Despite the musical-revue trappings, “You Say” quickly establishes itself as its own idiosyncratic thing (presented here by the avant-garde Foundry Theater). The Hot Mouth clan sometimes sits at a table, jamming in friendly fashion to phrases like “I am not what you call a freedom child” and “I believe there is a conspiracy.” For a humorous song called “Watermelon,” Coleman climbs a ladder to a second level and plays her cello while her cohorts dance and sing below in a minstrel parody.
In fact, despite director Talvin Wilks’ initially dour pacing, “You Say” soon demonstrates Hot Mouth’s engaging mix of light satire and deeply emotional music. (Jonathan Stone is responsible for some additional compositions and arrangements, and Viola Sheely for additional lyrics.) And when Helga Davis sets her ringing voice to Coleman’s diverse songs, or Ching Gonzalez lends his rich basso, the production stirs.
But not all the performers possess the talents of Davis and Gonzalez (Coleman has a particularly breathy voice), and the production, from Wilks’ staging to Anita Yavich’s nondescript costumes, could have a sharper edge. Still, the enjoyably unconventional Hot Mouth ensemble makes up for the faults.