BWW Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's FOREVER PLAID Offers Heavenly Music and Other-worldly Comedy
Life - with all its little eccentricities, coincidences and vagaries - sure is interesting, don't you think? Even the life of a theater critic who spends most of his time railing against the proliferation of productions of Newsies, Steel Magnolias and Beauty and the Beast can sometimes make a turn into interesting territory.
For example, dear readers, over the past fortnight (give or take a day or two), I've spent a lot of my time in interviews with, in the company of, and/or enjoying performances from - musical groups consisting of four impossibly young, startlingly attractive, ridiculously handsome, innately charming and endlessly talented men. I AM NOT COMPLAINING. In fact, I consider myself fairly lucky that I'm given the opportunity to spend so much of my time in their company (along with all their other, I daresay rabid, fans), listening to the music of my youth and sometimes from further back than even that (the Great American Songbook can be traced way beyond my beginning), so much so I now consider myself an expert on the genus "boy group."
You see, over the past few weeks I've directed much attention to performers from The Doo Wop Project and Under the Streetlamp (two musical groups composed primarily of talented young men who've done time in the casts of Jersey Boys over the years and who have set out to deliver their special brand of entertainment to the masses throughout these United States) and, most recently, Forever Plaid - Stuart Ross' affectionate tribute (in musical revue-style) to four-man musical groups of the 1950s and 1960s, which is currently onstage at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse.
I am not complaining, of course, because if my epitaph someday reads, "he reviewed a lot of guy groups, along with countless productions of Newsies, Steel Magnolias and Beauty and the Beast" - chances are I'm headed for the good place where, I suspect, judging from all the music I've heard from those aforementioned young men will indeed provide the soundtrack for Heaven. Also, it should be noted, that watching four impeccably dressed men singing their hearts out and dancing with near-perfect precision beats the hell out of chopping cotton or digging ditches.
Certainly, if you're lucky enough to spend a scant two hours in the company of Cumberland County Playhouse's Forever Plaid - comprised of Chris Hallowes, Ross Griffin, Paul Gary and Justin Burr - you'll feel like you've been good, thanks to their heavenly harmonies, delightful performances and all-around good-guy affability.
There's just something about a sharp-dressed man who sings and dances with aplomb and whose easy onstage banter brings laughter and smiles to their audience, even if they are sometimes so heartwarming and self-effacing that you might get a little teary in their presence.
If you are one of the few Americans never to have experienced Forever Plaid, let me explain what Stuart Ross' musical revue is all about: "Dedicated to the 'good guys,' to the guys who carried an extra handkerchief...who saved their allowances to give their parents an extra special night on the town for their anniversary...who wheeled the projector carts for the Driver Education films...who didn't go beyond first base, and if, by some miracle, they did, they didn't tell anyone."
In Ross' endearing tribute to the good guys - in this case, Frankie, Jinx, Sparky and Smudge (played with such confidence by the altogether dreamy quartet of Messrs. Hallowes, Griffin, Gary and Burr) - we are witnessing a miracle of sorts, thanks to the reanimation, if you will, of four promising young performers who are brought back to life to perform the concert they were never able to in life. You see, back in 1964 (that's 55 years ago for those of you who are arithmetic-challenged), when they were on their way to perform a huge concert at The Fusel Lounge of the Airport Hilton, they were broad-sided by a busload of Catholic teens headed for New York to see the Beatles in their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The pepped-up teens survived, but our heroes - the Plaids - were killed instantly while on their way to pick up their boss new plaid dinner jackets for the big show.
Now, for those people lucky enough to find themselves at CCP's Adventure Theatre, Forever Plaid plays that spectacular concert at last. Accompanied by Ron Murphy on piano, Chet Hayes on percussion and Tony Greco on bass, the Plaids proffer us with their renditions of such hits as "Three Coins in a Fountain," "Gotta Be This or That," "Moments to Remember," "Sixteen Tons," "Chain Gang" among a bevy of the best-loved tunes of the era, circa 64, along with my very favorite Plaids tune: "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby" performed with plumber's helpers just like they rehearsed it in the backroom of the hardware store where one of the guys used to work.
Directed by Britt Hancock, whose exemplary leadership as artistic director of CCP has helped to establish the theater as one of the very best purveyors of musical comedy outside of the Broadway, Forever Plaid is a tuneful show delivered with so much heart and soul that you'll be dewy-eyed when they actually perform "Heart and Soul." Hancock stages the show in such fashion that there's hardly a wasted moment, with the show moving along at a fast clip to elicit the most heartfelt of responses from the audience, underscoring the massive talents of the assembled gentlemen with enough nostalgia and high-spirited fun that you'll be planning a second, third or 27th visit to the time machine so conveniently located inside the Adventure Theatre.
Hallowes, Griffin, Gary and Burr are nothing short of amazing: Four consummate triple threats who bring such vigor to their performances that they leave you wanting more. Each man is fully committed to bringing his character to life and, perhaps even more importantly, to bring the music of your life back into the spotlight. They're clever and fun, to be certain, but never for a moment can you lose sight of what talented musicians they are as they deliver memorable renditions of all the songs that are sure to stir up memories for you - no matter your relationship to that music or how it impacted your life years ago. Even if you've never heard the songs before, or just have a passing familiarity with it, the four Plaids and their snazzy trio of musicians (Murphy's music direction will have you humming - and dancing - along in short order) will make you wish you'd been around back in the day to hear the music performed live by The Four Aces, The Four Lads, The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Los and The Crew Cuts.
Kathryn E. Cook provides the guys with the ideal recreation of a sophisticated mid-century supper club in which to perform, while Sam Hahn's lighting design will convince you that you've been transported back in time by half-a-century or so and Mariah Bowen clads her four handsome charges (hell, every one of 'em could be a model if he wanted) in some swell threads that capture the era perfectly. And Erin Skelly Holderman's props lend a period-perfect authenticity to the proceedings.
Forever Plaid runs through May 24, so time's a-wasting if you haven't seen the show yet. We can think of no better way to revel in the nostalgia of a simpler time (or at least you can tell yourself it was simpler while listening to four superb singers crooning your favorite songs) than time spent with Forever Plaid.
Forever Plaid. Written and originally directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross. Music continuity supervision and arrangements by James Raitt. Directed by Britt Hancock. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, in the Adventure Theatre, Crossville. Through May 24. For further information, go to www.ccplayhouse.com or call (931) 484-5000. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).