By BRUCE DENNILL
Forever Plaid / Directed by Jaco van Rensburg / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
There is really not much of a narrative arc in this jukebox musical showcasing many of the close harmony pop hits of the 1950s. It involves a quartet of young men – friends and bandmates – who have died in a car accident and find themselves emerging into some sort of space between life and death where they are able to function as they could when they were alive. This allows them a chance to perform the big show (the audience are visible to them; perhaps we all died on the way in – traffic in Fourways can be terrible) they always wanted to stage, in which the extent of their considerable talent could be appropriately displayed. The rest of the piece’s running time is then that set: the songs and choreography the foursome, who call themselves The Plaids, have been working on all their creative lives.
The slightness of that storyline is quickly forgotten once the quartet of singers arrive on the stylish, angled, well-lit stage-within-a-stage. Jinx (Musanete Sakupwanya), Sparky (Tiaan Rautenbach), Francis (Danny Meaker) and Smudge (Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri) are charming, personable and goofily funny from the off. The casting is excellent. Not only are the singers’ voices beautifully matched, but just as importantly, their chemistry is strong, positive and obvious, with the happiness and sense of enjoyment up front making it easy for the audience to get on board.
The quality is consistent throughout the 90 minutes or so of the musical’s running time. The compositions are not simple, with the cast often required to switch tenor or alto lines, come in cold on curious key changes and act and sing – including comedic “mistakes” written into their routines – while still holding the tune and providing a foil for their colleagues to bounce off. Rehearsals would have been long and complex, but these performers have everything down pat to a degree where there is no discernible thought as to what comes next or who is responsible – it’s just natural.
Additional details are equally sharp, with American accents consistent and convincing and additional skills (mostly included in an hilarious three minute and 11 second summary of the Ed Sullivan Show) as polished as they need to be given the frantic pacing of that segment of the show.
Each actor brings his character’s nature to the fore in entertaining ways. Sakupwanya is skittish and unsettled as the nervous Jinx; Rautenbach reveals a wonderful line in purposefully cheesy physical comedy as Jinx’s stepbrother Sparky; Meaker gives Francis, the group’s natural leader, a sort of low-level Elvis intensity; and Mahaka-Phiri, ably handling his first bass singing role, gives Smudge an air of cautious competency.
The dialogue is always gently funny and occasionally worthy of a guffaw, and the quartet handle the quickfire patter brilliantly, keeping the pace high and making the show a blast to watch even when the some of the songs are not as recognisable as others. Indeed, the use of the time period and its associated nostalgia as a major marketing point doesn’t necessarily do Forever Plaid any favours. Whatever your age group or familiarity with the music – Catch A Falling Star, Scotland The Brave, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing and many others – go and watch this for the wonderful talent of the performers, the energy the create and the complete lack of agenda that allows for undiluted appreciation of well-made art.