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Friday, May 9, 2014

Review: ‘Forever Plaid’ at the Bickford


Reviewed By Ruth Ross (*

A long time ago, B.E. – B.R.R. (Before Elvis and Before Rock n’ Roll), before there were In Sync and The Backstreet Boys, the leading “boy groups” of popular music included the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, the Four Tops and the Four Plaids.

The Four Plaids? Well, although they weren’t all that famous—not famous or real, really—the group has been immortalized by Stuart Ross in Forever Plaid,now being performed at the Bickford Theatre in Morristown.

silhouette for final poseThe operative word here is “immortalized,” for the basic premise of the show is that while en route to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos, a quartet of boy group wannabes from eastern Pennsylvania has been killed by a bus loaded with Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles’ debut performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Although their lives have ended, a miracle of astrotechnology has given the group a chance, 50 years later, to perform the show they never got to do in life. (Above L-R: John Anker Bow, Daniel Peter Vissers, Robert Farruggia and David Murgittroyd)

What ensues is a nearly two-hour trip down Memory Lane, as the group performs “covers” of such fifties pop hits as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much” (bottom photo)  and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” (middle photo). They even manage to mangle the Beatles' "She Loves You," performed Doo Wop style! And their clunky footwork (choreographed with appropriate cheesiness by Scott McGowan, himself a former Plaid), awkward patter and wavering harmonies remind us of their amateur status, but their passion and enthusiasm win our hearts as we sing along.

Individually, each of the four actors is winning and talented; as a group, they’re dynamite. Robert Farruggia as the tenor Jinx wears a "deer in the headlights" look through most of the performance, but he sure can sing. Daniel Peter Vissers plays Frankie a la Valli; he's the de facto leader of the group and the most personable of the four. David Murgittroyd is a wide-eyed naïf as Sparky, and John Anker Bow's Smudge ably sings bass and contributes some patter to bridge the musical numbers. Nick DeGregorio on piano and John Hoesly on bass provide terrific accompaniment, and Eric Hafen’s direction is natural and steady (those dead spots are intentional, folks).

Splendored ThingThe Plaids do manage some pretty fancy footwork in “Gotta Be This or That,” and bring down the house singing “Crazy ‘bout Ya, Baby,” using plungers instead of microphones (they’ve only practiced it that way)! Farruggia's rendition of Johnny Ray’s “Cry” is right on the money, and Bow's deep bass resonantly drives “Sixteen Tons” and “Chain Gang.” In “Heart and Soul” three Plaids sing the lyrics as Farruggia plays the piano (bet you didn’t know that piano ditty had words!), and the group even drags an audience member onstage to play the top part (the melody) on the piano, with a little help from the boys. Murgittroyd is especially funny in “Perfidia” when he sings the words in high school Spanish! Other funny moments include a whirlwind Ed Sullivan Show, featuring Senor Wences and the mouse Topo Gigio, a tribute to Perry Como entitled “The Golden Cardigan,” and a Calypso medley complete with outrageous straw hats and an audience sing-along to "Matilda."

No, Not MuchThere’s not much that’s original inForever Plaid, and some of it’s plain cheesy, but that’s just the point. In fact, as Frankie notes, their sound is to contemporary (1959) music as "Formica is to marble." It’s great fun to hear these oldies again, kind of like entering a time warp, but without the zits and dateless nights. Best of all, these songs remind us of a time when music really meant harmonic melodies and lyrics about love and yearning—a far cry from the misogynistic, homophobic rap and heavy metal that passes for music today. There is a reason public television uses Doo Wop and Fifties concerts to raise money! (Above: Back, Vissers, Farruggia; Front, Bow, Murgittroyd)

So for a tuneful evening that will produce a big smile, tear yourself away from the rotten news on television, grab your best guy or gal, and drive on over to the Bickford Theatre for Forever Plaid. With “a pocketful of starlight” (and a few shekels), you will have "moments to remember." And get a load of those plaid tuxedos!  Ruth Ross

Forever Plaid will be performed at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, through May 25. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706. Online ticketing is not available.

*Note: Rick Busciglio is ‘on medical leave’ (i.e. unable to review at this time). Reviews are being kindly provided by Ruth Ross and Michael T. Mooney

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