Smooth as Silk
Once upon a time in the world of American pop music, smooth was cool. Subtlety reigned, and young love was sung, fully dressed, with tight melodic harmony and background moves in shiny unison. In the Eisenhower era, "doo-wop" was the sound of choice, and black singing groups were the kings of showbiz. They were quickly emulated by the white folks in a unique crossover whose benefits and influence wouldn't be fully felt until years later: Pop music was the great equalizer, the great integrator. For some unexplained reason, bird names were big: flocks of Ravens, Crows, Flamingoes, Larks and flightless Penguins crowded the hit parade charts. Sophisticated, easy charm was the epitome of class, and the music was silk upon the ear.
The Doves were such a group. In Get Ready, the joyous Jaye and Debi Stewart/Joe Plummer play with music, which inaugurates Ensemble Theatre's 30th season, we meet this fictional doo-wop group years after their prime. They peaked in the '50s, disappearing after a few semi-hits, and now gather dust in pop music's close-out bin. They're yesteryear's vinyl. On the cusp of major stardom when the group imploded, the five former singers have gone separate ways, but they've just been spinning their wheels. Now, 30 years later -- the play is set in the early '80s -- the chance of a reunion tour has revived that tantalizing youthful dream. Naturally, the idiosyncrasies that once doomed the group are still fresh and potent, so the reality of getting back on stage, even for this last chance at the taste of fame, seems ready to doom them anew.
This is the meat of the meager plot, and there are no surprises in the bare-bones conflicts that the guys stumble over and persevere through. For every stock situation the group faces, we know what's coming because we've seen it countless times in such backstagers as Dreamgirls, Sparkle and any of those inspirational follow-your-dream movies of the week. But -- and this is the big saving grace -- for all its write-by-numbers dramaturgy, Get Ready has magnificent charm and wonderful innocence, along with a fresh, throwaway quality that relishes the antique plotlines and revels in character. It's all as smooth as the Doves' songs "Love's On My Side" and "I Like to Flirt," composer Plummer's sleek doo-wop throwbacks.
From the moment they gather to rehearse at their former choreographer's dance studio and start bickering, we love these five old underdogs. They check themselves out in the mirror while they check out each other. Easily winded, they step on each other's toes and diss one another, but there's a real twinkle in their eyes and a lightness to their steps as the music begins to rework its magic on their out-of-shape bodies. They all seem a decade too young for the characters (were they a boy band in the '50s?), but with an ensemble this lively, it doesn't matter -- we'll go with them wherever they want to take us. The play's routine, but the guys are gold. This is genuine theater magic at work.
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The five smoothies are given quirky edges: Former lead singer Roscoe (David J. Broussard) has sold his soul along with the Doves' contract to his wicked witch of a wife; Vern (Norman W. Davis) is the big optimist with a surprisingly agile falsetto; horndog Johnson (Henry Edwards) is the pessimist always baiting the others; Bunch (Kevin Haliburton) is little and squat but has the slickest moves; and Frankie (Andrew Jackson) wears an eye patch because his girlfriend has thrown him out of the house but kept his glass eye. The talented quintet is amply augmented by worldly old-timer Knobby (a very smooth Broderick Jones); J.R. (Amin Moore), the kid who thinks that the Moon Walk is the last word; and sharp-tongued Eva (Beryl MacGee), whose firmament-shaking rendition of "Is There a Heaven For Folks With the Blues" stops the show.
The play takes a dramatic detour when the guys reminisce about their aborted tour of the South during the days of segregation. This is where Frankie lost his eye. This brief scene flares up in the course of their natural bickering in response to the kid's clueless sense of history, but it disperses just as quickly. It's only one part of their story -- life goes on. It's a lovely little moment of thoughtful stillness; the play could use more of those.
The last sequence is the reunion concert, and not only are the five actors incandescent as they bring the Doves to singing and dancing life, but we also get the bright shine of Aisha Ussery's choreography, Kelly Babb's atmospheric cabaret lighting, Connie Landry's glossy costumes and Samuel E. Jackson's spirited musical direction.
The Doves soar high and graceful in Get Ready under the graceful co-direction of Clarence and Shirley Whitmore. It's a real crowd pleaser. All that's missing is a "greatest hits" LP for sale in the Ensemble lobby after the show, or, at the very least, one of those brittle 45-rpms with the big center hole. Remember those?
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