Review: ‘Forever Plaid’

After he and his three companions in song have harmonized their way through more than 30 pop standards from the 1950s and early '60s, Francis (Neil Nash) gazes ecstatically out at the audience and rhapsodizes, "There is nothing as wonderful as being inside a tight chord."

After he and his three companions in song have harmonized their way through more than 30 pop standards from the 1950s and early ’60s, Francis (Neil Nash) gazes ecstatically out at the audience and rhapsodizes, “There is nothing as wonderful as being inside a tight chord.” Nash, Paul Castee, David Engel and Larry Raben prove just that as they flawlessly re-create many of the hits of such 1950s male quartets as the Four Freshmen, the Ames Brothers, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Crew Cuts and the Hi-Lo’s.

This well-traveled musical review tells the tale of the Plaids, a smalltown vocal quartet who were killed in a car crash on the evening of their first professional engagement at the Airport Hilton’s Fusel Lounge. It is prophetic that they died on Feb. 9, 1964, the night the Fab Four from Britain made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show and overnight rendered such squeaky-clean groups as the Plaids forever obsolete.

As conceived, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross, the Plaids are given heavenly dispensation to return to Earth to do the show they would have performed if they had lived; and this gifted quartet certainly makes the most of it. Ross masterfully re-creates all the standard stage antics of such groups: the hokey comedy bits, the hilariously awful choreography and the embarrassingly affected “song tributes.”

All of this onstage foolishness works because each member of the Plaids is a definable personality who approaches his character with total commitment. It is absolutely believable that Francis sold dental supplies, Jinx (Castee) worked in auto parts, Smudge (Engel) was in bathroom fixtures and Sparky (Raben) sold dresses, and the four were limited to harmonizing on evenings and weekends only. Something magical happened to these callow youths during their stay in heaven because when they return to Earth these boys really can sing.

Through all their antics, the four offer beautifully balanced harmonies on such standards as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “This or That,” “Undecided,” “Shangri-La,” “Rags to Riches,” “Moments to Remember,” “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby,” “No, Not Much” and the evening ending, “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” They even offer their own unique take on the Beatles’ hit, “She Loves You.” The harmonic highlight of the evening, however, is their Hi-Lo’s-tinged outing on “Scotland the Brave.”

Though chord progressions are their thing, they do manage a few memorable solo turns. Castee’s stratospheric tenor offers a hauntingly mellow lead on “Moments to Remember” and then just rips through the Johnny Ray hit “Cry.” Engel demonstrates his wide vocal range on the Tennessee Ernie Ford standard “Sixteen Tons.” Raben is a comic delight with his horrific Spanish version of “Perfidia” and gives it his Perry Como best on “Catch a Falling Star.” Nash handles the lead on Harry Belafonte’s signature tune, “Matilda.”

The piano-bass duo of David Snyder and Domenic Genova offer perfect accompaniment, enhanced greatly by Tony Tait’s well-balanced sound design. Also lending great support to the quartet’s efforts are the atmospheric set and lighting designs of Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman, respectively. And of course, Debra Stein’s plaid-emblazoned costumes are absolutely correct.

Forever Plaid

Canon Theatre; 372 seats; $42.50 top)

Production

Joan Stein and Veronica Chambers present a musical revue in one act written, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross; musical continuity, arrangements and musical supervision by James Raitt. Music supervisor, Steven Freeman; musical director/pianist, David Snyder.

Creative

Set, Neil Peter Jampolis; lighting, Jane Reisman; costumes, Debra Stein; sound, Tony Tait; bassist, Domenic Genova. Opened, reviewed Jan. 6, 1997; runs through Feb. 28. Running time: 1 hour, 35 min.

Cast

Cast: Paul Castee (Jinx), David Engel (Smudge), Neil Nash (Francis), Larry Raben (Sparky).
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