REVIEW: Mill Town Players Find Perfect Harmony in ‘Forever Plaid’

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“Forever Plaid” by the Mill Town Players

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Mill Town Players are painting the town of Pelzer plaid in its new heavenly musical “Forever Plaid,” the Off-Broadway revue that takes audiences on a mission of harmonies and grace of boy-pop groups of 1950s and the hereafter.

Written by Stuart Ross, this musical comedy features four young high school chums collectively are known as The Plaids, a talented quartet of clean-cut, well-groomed teens who love singing harmony.

Well, at least they used to before they were just snuffed out mid-coda in a head-on collision with a busload of Catholic schoolgirls bound for “The Ed Sullivan Show” to see The Beatles.

Miraculously, The Plaids, modeled after early acts like the Ames Brothers and The Four Aces, are given a chance to come back on earth for a one-night-only concert at the historic Pelzer Auditorium and perform some two dozen of the era’s most popular hits.

And while the fellows are too young to have experienced serious romance during their brief, life time, they are indeed talented enough to pine for idealistic love through song.

The magnanimous Drew Whitley (who starred as the titular “Robin Hood” in Pelzer in 2015 and more recently as an ensemble member in The Warehouse Theatre’s “Urinetown”) is real charmer as their leader Frankie, exuding measures and measures of personality. As second tenor (and sometime falsetto), Whitley soars as lead in the Oscar-winning “Three Coins in a Fountain” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, and other gems like a fantastically-staged  rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”

Aaron Pennington (last seen strumming guitar in “Always…Patsy Cline) never disappoints Mill Town Players audiences. Here, he is initially subdued as Jinx, the shy one who is reticent to perform, but explodes with some impressive falsetto during the entire non-stop concert in magical moments like “Moments to Remember” and “Cry,” both originally recorded by The Four Lads.

Dalton Cole (co-founder of The Market Theatre Company in his MTP debut) plays Smudge in Buddy Holly glasses. He swoons eloquently in the Tony Bennett standard “Rags to Riches” and in the finger-snapping, coal-minor fable with a country twist “Sixteen Tons,” made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

As the cut-up and clown Sparky, the plucky MTP newcomer Johnny Culwell lets loose as the perfection of silliness in “Perfidia.” But this classically-trained musician is at his most stellar he lets loose on the piano on the Hoagy Carmichael-Frank Loesser masterpiece “Heart and Soul.”

The plot of “Forever Plaid” is a tad trite, even borderline hokey, with cliché humor derived from Jinx’s nosebleeds and Frankie’s asthma, but this enthusiastic quartet of virtuosos and the range of the musical styles from doo-wop to calypso, combined with the script’s unique use of audience participation, frankly makes this show irresistible. There is no intermission but the show moves at madcap speed.

“Forever Plaid” is both directed and choreographed by Kimberlee Ferreira (in back-to-back projects after the sell-out run of “Christmas in Dixie”) with her usual skill and aplomb.  And while there is little formal dancing in the show, The Plaids have plenty of rhythm and Ms. Ferreira has choreographed some period syncopated swaying, gestures and moves tailor-made for the gents.

Greenville Little Theatre’s Tim St Clair II music directs and secures some pristine vocal unison and blending in over two dozen nearly-forgotten, four-part pop songs. Most are swathed in both innocence and grandeur, but are also very difficult pieces of music with claustrophobically-close harmonies of notes often crunched only a half-step apart.

A delightfully-deadpan Chase McAbee (frequent music director for FIRE Theatre among other ventures) is finally out of the orchestra pit playing himself in the after-life and tickles the ivories of his custom Liberace piano, alongside Jordan Hanner on upright bass, and an “uncle” to one of the Plaids.

The illustrious marquee bandstand for “Forever Plaid” is the beautiful creation of frequent MTP scenic designer Kim Granner and augmented by Ashley Pittman’s lighting. The Stage Manager of “Forever Plaid” is Katie Halstensgard with Kim Morgan as assistant stage manager.

The formal wear and plaid costumes are the work of costumer Paula Southwell. And special kudos to Upstate actor and fashion designer Nick Kulmala for his gorgeous plaid bow ties and cummerbunds. I wore one of his lime green designs to the opening. Discover his bow tie collection at adappersandlapper.com.

Hats off also to the props department (Susan Brown-Wadleigh and Lauren Lewis) and graphic designer Ryan Bradburn for the authentic Decca Records-style “vintage” LPs used in the show as well as the awesome publicity shots for “Forever Plaid.”

“Forever Plaid” runs through February 19, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit www.milltownplayers.org.

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