“their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number”
Once upon a time, back in 1964, a semi-professional harmony group was on its way to its first big gig. While driving in a cherry-red convertible, the group was rehearsing their finale; ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’. They were just getting to their favourite E flat diminished seventh chord when their car collided with a bus full of eager teenagers on their way to watch the Beatles make their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. The kids in the bus miraculously escaped uninjured. The harmony, group, however, was killed instantly.
Fast forward to the present. The young guys are still in limbo – as unresolved as their final chord – but they find themselves back on earth for a chance to recreate the concert they never got to perform. It’s a simple set up: the four singers emerge, dressed in white tuxedos, slightly bewildered. Stuart Ross’s tongue in cheek book is updated for the Covid generation by John Plews; with a reference to the audience wearing masks. “Are we in a theatre or an operating theatre?”. But the soul of the piece remains intact. With its light humour, combined with stunning vocal virtuosity, this is a gorgeous antidote to today’s cynicism and cheap send ups. It is a heartfelt homage to an often forgotten but vital period in the history of American popular music.
“Forever Plaid” was the first musical that opened Upstairs at the Gatehouse in 1999, so it is fitting that it should be the first to herald its reopening after the pandemic. Cameron Burt, George Crawford, Christopher Short and Alexander Zane are, respectively, Frankie, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky, who lead us through a celebration of bands such as The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen and The Crew Cuts. Not instantly recognisable names, but the songs are instantly familiar. The musical performance is reminiscent of old variety shows that brought the whole family together around the television set. It is not character driven, but the cast have real personality as they reminisce about the past and try to make sense of the present. They are each portraying amateurs in their craft, but their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number.
The songs include ‘Catch a Falling Star’, ‘Cry’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’. ‘Heart and Soul’ and many others. The revue is a subtle spectacle, celebrating the flip side of the fifties which has become overshadowed by Rock n’ Roll, Elvis and the Beatles. The comedy is not restricted to the repartee between the songs. There is a wonderful moment when they take on the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’, tightening the harmonies and singing ‘She Loves You Yes Siree”. There is a Calypso sequence, and a fabulous version of ‘Lady of Spain’ while they mime and juggle and impersonate bygone celebrities.
You don’t need to be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate ‘Forever Plaid’. It obviously helps, but what can’t be helped is the spell that is cast. Each note, sung and spoken is spot on. With musical director Ian Oakley on keys and Jess Martin on double bass, we have a real sense of the warmth and emotional tug of nostalgia. They sing ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ to close the show – the number the fictitious quartet were rehearsing before they died. They marvel at this dreamlike chance to have a second chance. “Can we pick off where we left off?” they ask. They answer their own question; “Why not? We came back once, we can do it again… A perfect chord. One perfect moment. That’s all anyone has the right to ask for”.
This isn’t the first time that “Forever Plaid” has run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. And let’s hope it’s not the last.
“we are swept along by the sheer feelgood factor built into the show, and the absolute precision and fluidity of this all-singing, all-dancing cast”
Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes, and the 1933 film of the same name, “42nd Street” is a Jukebox musical of sorts. There were barely five songs in the film, so the show ransacks composer Harry Warren’s and lyricist Al Dubin’s stockpile of numbers they had written for other films at around the same time. Whilst this is a bonus, there are moments when it appears obvious that these musical numbers were not written for this show, and they feel shoehorned into Michael Stewart’s and Mark Bramble’s whimsical and high-spirited script. But this is easily forgiven as we are swept along by the sheer feelgood factor built into the show, and the absolute precision and fluidity of this all-singing, all-dancing cast.
The show focuses on the efforts of celebrated but tough director Julian Marsh to mount the ‘greatest musical on Broadway’ during the Great Depression. He needs a hit and he needs the money, so he hires fading diva, Dorothy Brock, because of the investment pouring from her sugar-daddy. Meanwhile, out-of-town Peggy gate-crashes the auditions stealing hearts, and then the spotlight. An accident takes Dorothy out of the show and the rest is beautifully predictable and heart-warmingly uplifting.
The defining moment of the plot, just before Peggy steps in to save the show, occurs just before interval when the director cancels the performance and urges the audience to collect their refund at box office. A clever theatrical device that sets up the second act; but one that also reflects this particular production. Stylistically it is a show of two halves. Initially the pace is a touch laboured, lacking the light-hearted approach needed to do justice to the throwaway comedy of the dialogue. There are sparks, but the fire doesn’t quite catch. But, boy, the second act comes into its own, as do the cast. “42nd Street” depicts a bygone era, before reality celebrity and social media, when talent was what made a star. And Katie and John Plews have assembled a star-studded team. Each a triple-threat, they work together as a synchronised unit with barely a foot or a note out of place. Simon Adkins’ choreography could easily quickstep down Highgate Hill into the West End.
The show belongs to them all, the ensemble and principals alike. Kate-Anne Fenton’s Peggy is a light under a bushel, humble yet unafraid to be coaxed into living her dream. She is well complemented by the heartthrob voice and looks of Rory Shafford as Billy Lawlor. Tamsin Dowsett pitches just right the understated hamminess of Dorothy Brock, whose broken ankle fractures her career but heals her broken heart. Pulling the strings, though, is Alex Wadham’s commanding performance as the tough yet tender Julian Marsh. Still, the generosity of the leading players leaves the doors wide open for the minor characters to steal any scene they can. Charlie Burt is a ball of energy who lights up the stage, eclipsed only by the dynamic chorus trio of Helen Rose, Jessica Wright and Samantha Noël; their close-knit harmonies strikingly evocative of the period. An age brought even closer to us by Emily Bestow’s razzmatazz fashion parade of costume, and the array of well-known and well-loved showtunes, including ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, ‘We’re In The Money’, ‘Dames’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and the eponymous ‘42nd Street’.
A little slow off the starting line, we forget by the time we’ve reached the rousing and moving finale. And the show is only at the beginning of its run. Like Marsh says to the blossoming Peggy as she’s seconds out from her Broadway debut; “You’re going out a youngster, but you gotta come back a star”, this show will undoubtedly grow into a sure-fire hit.