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Review: 'Forever Plaid' makes big return to Totem Pole

FAYETTEVILLE - Catherine Azzone of Fayetteville made her Totem Pole Playhouse debut Saturday night during the performance of "Forever Plaid."

It was, to a degree, an accident.

During a performance of the old standard, “Heart and Soul,” the performers - Louis Griffin, Derek Kastner, Stavros Koumbaros and Gabe Wrobel - asked if there was anybody in the audience who could play the top end of the melody on the piano.

Azzone raised her hand, saying “I think so.”

In a flash, she was escorted onto stage and sat at the bench next to Wrobel and the two of them went at it as the group sung the number…and later danced across the stage with Azzone.

It is not an experience she is likely to forget.

Not to mention that the choice of music was lucky.

“When I take care of my granddaughter, I play that on the piano for her,” Azzone said, laughing.

Actually, there was a lot of laughing, as well as some tears and humming along during the performance, and a standing ovation at the end.

“Forever Plaid” is funny, poignant, joyful, sad and, in the end, about hope and redemption.

The back-story is the fictional tale of Sparky, Smudge, Jinx and Frankie, who discovered they shared a love for music, and get together to form their own group, modeled after their idols – The Four Freshman, The Hi-Lo’s and The Crew Cuts.

The spend a lot of time practicing in the storage closet of a janitorial supply company owned by the parents of one of the boys, and eke out spending money signing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

They catch a break and land their first big singing engagement. On their way, the car they are riding in is broadsided, killing them instantly.

That is where our story begins. The ‘Plaids’ return from above singing in close harmony and performing just-over-the-top choreography.

Make no mistake: The backbone of the play is the popular music of the 1950s and a little earlier, and that the four young men – the oldest is 21 – perform flawlessly, sometimes heartbreakingly so. Frankly, it was hard to realize that all of those songs were hoary with age before any of them were born. Numbers included “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Heart and Soul,” “Moments to Remember,” “Perfidia,” “Lady of Spain,” “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” and more.

If the harmonies had been any tighter, they would have squeaked.

Not will to let the performance go as an ordinary repertoire of nostalgic songs, the Plaids wove humor in as well. Their presentation of the hour-long “Ed Sullivan Show” (younger readers may need to Google that one) in three minutes and eleven seconds has to be seen to be believed. They even mentioned Topo Gigio, a cartoon character dating from Sullivan’s show in 1963.

Kastner was asked how the heck he knew about the character.

“I had to look a lot of things up,” he said.

Mike Kastner, Derek’s father, said all four men had been close friends since boyhood, and were always interested in musical theater.

“Totem Pole is their debut in front of a regular public audience,” he said, adding that most of their work has been in competition in various musical theater schools.

Totem Pole featured a production of “Forever Plaid” a number of years ago. Don’t be put off by that. This is a whole new thing, said Totem Pole’s Producing Artistic Director Rowan Joseph.

Though "Plaid" was one of the most successful musicals in the theater’s 66-year history, this all-new production is directed and choreographed by Christine O’Grady, who choreographed Totem Pole’s critically-acclaimed production, "Shenandoah," last season and audience favorite, "Godspell," the previous summer.

O’Grady’s chose Kastner, Koumbaros and Wrobel right out of the student body of the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. The CCM is the oldest musical theater training program in the country and was the first of its kind. Many of its graduates are following successful careers as performers and creative artists in every facet of the entertainment industry, said Joseph.

CCM was recently named the top musical theater training program in the country.

“Forever Plaid” is running through July 3.

Tickets range from $30 to $50 with matinee performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. and evening performances Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets for all performances can be purchased at or by calling the Totem Pole Playhouse box office at 888-805-7056.