As their name implies, the Manic Optimists are all about fun, and recently that flair for fun has earned them fame well beyond the borders of the campus at Bates College, where they have been entertaining audiences for the past decade as one of the college’s most popular musical ensembles.

The Man Ops, as they refer to themselves, were chosen in December as one of 24 amateur singing groups from across New England to perform during the second season of the television show “Sing That Thing!” Produced by the Boston public television station WGBH and rebroadcast on Maine’s MPBN, “Sing That Thing!” showcases a variety of genres from the world of vocal music, including pop, jazz, spirituals, hip hop, show choir and classical.

When episode seven is broadcast at 5 p.m. today (Sunday, May 22) on Channel 10, viewers will have a chance to see the Bates group compete in the semi-final round against the Doo Wop Shop, another all-male group from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The finals round will be shown at 5:30 p.m.

The Man Ops earned their way to the semi-finals by performing the Miley Cyrus song “See You Again” in episode three of the competition. The show’s judges (Berklee College of Music faculty members Larry Watson and Annette Philip, and WGBH News executive arts editor Jared Bowen) were particularly impressed by their energy and creativity, commending them on their “great choreography” and describing them as “fantastic actors as well as singers.”

Their talent to entertain on so many levels is not surprising, given the fact that they started out as a sketch comedy group before transitioning to an a cappella ensemble. Although they all have strong musical backgrounds, everyone in the group has a different academic major — ranging from English to economics to pre-med — that adds an extra layer of diversity to the group.

The members’ level of dedication is impressive. Despite their studies and myriad other demands on their time, they manage to get together to practice four times a week and, as a result, they’ve forged a unique camaraderie that serves to bring out the best in each of them.

Senior Zaq Shabman is a varsity football and soccer player at Bates who says that early on he was so focused on athletics that he missed out on a lot of what the college had to offer. Then he joined the Manic Optimists, and instantly gained 13 new “best friends” from all across the social spectrum. “We have dancers, actors, musicians, physics majors, all different types of people,” all drawn together through their common love of singing. “It’s opened me up to a whole other world.”

Max Alley, another senior who has served this year as president of the Manic Optimists, said he didn’t really know what to expect when he signed the group up for the competition last fall at the urging of an alumni member of the group. After submitting a performance video, they were notified that they had been selected from a field of more than 80 vocal ensembles as the only Maine group to compete against 23 other groups from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

The series includes groups from three categories: high school, collegiate and adult. In the collegiate category, the ManOps have already bested Emerson, Gordon, UMASS Lowell, Williams, Yale and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The group found the experience to be exhilarating. For most of them, said Alley, it was their first time on television, which added an extra dose of giddiness to the default Man Ops persona. But their nervous energy worked for them and they made it through the initial rounds to earn a spot in the semi-finals.

For this episode they were assigned to come up with an original “mash up” (or medley) arrangement of two very disparate pieces of vocal music: the ’70s disco pop hit “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s 1741 classical masterwork “Messiah.”

Compounding that challenge was the fact that the taping of the semi-finals was scheduled during Bates’ February vacation week, when several of the Manic Optimists were unable to participate due to prior commitments (crew team, tennis team, job interview, etc.), leaving the group low on tenors.

Plus, said Alley, the reduced numbers also compromised their choreography. Yet true to the Man Op spirit, the remaining members forged valiantly ahead, with the results to be publicly revealed in tonight’s screening of episode seven of “Sing That Thing.”

Regardless of the outcome, the group is thankful for the chance to share their talents — and their joy — with the wider world beyond Bates. Group member Dan Murphy sees their popularity as a matter of simple chemistry: “We’re best friends who like to sing.”

And so that’s what they do: They sing and they have fun doing it. Murphy added, “It’s easy to do well when you love what you do and you love who you’re with.”

Watch the Manic Optimists

Taped in February, the semifinals of this season’s “Sing That Thing!” featuring Bates College’s Manic Optimists will be shown at 5 p.m. today, Sunday, May 22, on Channel 10 WCBB. The final will be shown at 5:30 p.m. 

To see the Manic Optimists’ first competition, go to WGBH’s website at singthatthing.wgbh.org/episodes/ and watch episode No. 3. Other episodes feature the other competitors in Season 2.


Comments are not available on this story.