Back in the late 1970’s, theatrical producer, Stuart Ross and his partner Marc Hampton developed a delightful musical biography of the famed Boswell Sisters singing trio of the 1920’s and ’30’s. Titled “The Heebie Jeebies,” it told the true story of three jazzy young New Orleans gals, Connee, Vet, and Martha Boswell, stars of stage and screen who were the toast of two continents, sang regularly with Bing Crosby, sold records galore, and laid the groundwork for such later groups as the Andrews Sister, the Gumm Sisters (Yes – the young Judy Garland-to-be was one), and many others. By way of full disclosure, I should tell you that I knew Vet Boswell personally, and became one of the original “front money” angel investors in “Heebie Jeebies,” which over a two year period was developed in New York cabaret, broke records in summer stock, and opened (to generally favorable reviews) at Manhattan’s Westside Arts Theatre in the steamy summer of 1981. While the reviews were favorable, the weather was not, and the show closed after a couple of months, taking my investment with it. It had been a couple of fun filled years, but perhaps I should have waited to be an investor, because Stuart Ross’ next project was a little show called “Forever Plaid.” That show has continued to run around the world for decades!
I’ve seen “Forever Plaid” numerous times, not only in in New York, but here at Texas Repertory Theatre, and even once at Houston’s Alley Theatre more than a dozen years ago; but I have never seen a more delightful production than the one that greeted recent summer audiences at the Masquerade Theatre. Directed by Phillip Duggins, and based on the “guy groups” of the mid-twentieth century (I.E. The Four Aces, The Four Lads, The Four Freshmen, etc.), the cute plot revolves about a similar 4-guy group, “Forever Plaid,” that is tragically killed in a traffic collision just as the guys were about to play their first big concert. Forty years later, through the miracle of theatrical invention, they are given the heavenly blessing of a one-night return to earth, with the chance, at last, to perform the concert that never was. What a blessing for all of us!
Loosely linked by the lightweight plot, the show is a smorgasbord of pop hits of the era, and the stellar cast of four (Luther Chakurian as Jinx, Brad Scarborough as Frankie, Sam Brown as Sparky, and Evan Tessier as Smudge) often sounds better than the original hit recordings. The lads, dressed in plaid vests, and crisp white dinner jackets adorned by red carnations, arrive on stage via “Deux Ex Plaid,” a somber and mystical candlelit entrance chant (through the audience). They rival the serious nuns in “The Sound of Music,” until the tune ends hilariously with a resounding, “Sha-Boom.” It was all fun and fine music from there on, and Musical Director, Sally Gardner, presided skillfully, with able assistance from the onstage band including Mike Medley on bass, and Russell Dunlap on percussion.
The good-humored banter of the witty script is well carried off by the boys, but nothing surpassed the rich harmonies (and solos) that would follow in songs like “Three Coins in a Fountain,” and the cute, “Gotta Be This or That.” Pleasantly silly choreography (designer, Michelle Macicek) punctuates much of the evening, as in the delightful rendition of “Undecided.” Then, like a balm for the soul, the song “Moments to Remember,” was exactly what it claimed to be. In addition to their musical excellence, these gentlemen exuded such a sense of confident stage presence, comic timing and esprit de corps, that I found myself thinking they could be filling a Vegas showroom every night. But lucky Houston— We’ve got ‘em right here, as permanent members of this brilliant Masquerade repertory company!
Then it was on to a snazzy, “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby,” an exquisitely crafted, “No Not Much,” and the choo-choo choreography of a lovely “Perfidia,” under rosy lighting from designer, Russell Freeman. Mr. Chakurian followed with an astounding and thrilling crowd-pleaser in a performance of “Cry,” that rivaled the one I enjoyed from Johnnie Ray years ago at the “Top of the Dunes” nightclub in Las Vegas. Tessier was next with a finger-snappin’ “Sixteen Tons,” that led nicely to Mr. Scarborough’s rhythmic and smooth, “Chain Gang.” There was an amusing “Catering Drill” segment spoofing the traditional music for weddings, bar mitzvahs etc., and The Beatles were represented in a jazzed-up version of “She Loves You.” In a delicious homage to Perry Como, Mr. Brown cheerfully led the group in a “Golden Cardigan,” medley of such songs as, “Catch a Falling Star,” “Papa Loves Mambo,” and “Magic Moments.” It was a pleasant reminder of a night long ago when I enjoyed Mr. Como’s performance at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair.
Caribbean flair prevails when the guys offer “Kingston Market,” “The Banana Boat Song,” (a.k.a. “Day-O”), and an audience sing-a-long of “Matilda,” merrily piloted by Scarborough with his bright eyes shining. Then came a favorite segment of “Forever Plaid,” the fabulous 3-minute, “Lady of Spain” tribute to the Ed Sullivan Show, featuring just about every Sullivan show staple, with ballet dancers, opera singers, puppets, jugglers, and lusty lead singing from Chakurian. There was one high-pitched audio glitch during a fine “Scotland the Brave,” but moments later the guys were back in dazzling plaid tuxedos, (costume designer, Kayleen Clements) to deliver an exquisite, “Shangri-La.” Then Tessier took center stage, in really high gear, for a powerful “Rags to Riches” that was more perfectly suited to his vocal range than the previous “Sixteen Tons.”
During the show’s perhaps too sentimental closing moments, Mr. Scarborough’s character, Frankie, waxes philosophical, suggesting that “…perhaps all we can hope for in life is one perfect chord, one perfect moment.” If that is true, we lucky members of the audience got much more than we bargained for!”