Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May, 2006
Did you know that Forever Plaid, a show with nary a dirty joke let alone a pretty girl or a sequin, has been running more or less continuously for the past decade in Las Vegas? When I was there in 2000 the Plaids had their own billboard on the Vegas strip. Somewhere up in heaven Frankie, Sparky, Smudge, and Jinx are very, very happy.
For a theatre critic, admitting that you love Forever Plaid is like a food critic admitting s/he enjoys eating at Friendly’s. So I present the evidence above to prove that I am not the only person in the universe to have an inexplicable affinity for this silly little show. No, it is not great drama, or even a great musical like the Mac-Haydn’s next offering, the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific. It never ever even made it to Broadway. It is just a fun evening filled with great music and lots of laughs. When done well, and the Mac-Haydn has done it very well indeed, it is a thoroughly satisfying entertainment and truly a show that the whole family can enjoy together.
I first encountered Forever Plaid when I spent fifty cents at a tag sale on a sad little boot-leg cassette of the original 1990 off-Broadway production. The faded Xerox of the liner notes was barely legible, and, other than knowing it was a show album and I liked what I heard, I knew nothing about it. So when the Theater Barn produced it in 1995, I had to go. And that was it. I was hooked. I have now, with my faithful son and theatre companion Brandon, seen eleven productions in eight states.
Very brief plot synopsis: The Plaids are a dead, fictitious male harmony group of little distinction. They were killed in 1964 when their cherry-red Mercury convertible was slammed broadside by a school bus filled with eager Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles make their U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Through some bizarre cosmic quirk, they are able to return to earth to give the performance they never got to give while alive. During the course of their ultimate concert, you get to know and love these four well-meaning though hopelessly naïve young men, who met in the audio-visual club in high school and rehearse in the back room of a plumbing supply store. There is a heapin’ helpin’ of gentle nostalgia for audience members old enough to remember life before the Beatles, including an hilarious send-up of the Ed Sullivan Show, which which even Brandon, who can’t tell a photo of Sullivan from one of Richard Nixon, can enjoy.
I like my Plaids young, and I knew that the Mac-Haydn – famous for unearthing impressive young talent – would not disappoint me. Bryon DeMent (Jinx), Jason Paul (Sparky), and Felix Hess (Frankie) were all familiar to me from notable performances in secondary roles and specialty acts in previous productions at the Mac-Haydn, and I knew they were capable of star turns if given the chance. Newcomer Sean Quinn (Smudge) is an excellent addition, making this one of the most cohesive sets of Plaids I have seen in a long time.
Jinx is my favorite Plaid, and if there is one thing that drives me crazy it’s a Jinx who can’t hit the high notes. Having heard DeMent hit frightening vocal altitudes as Chantal in last season’s production of La Cage Aux Folles I knew that I would not be let down in this production. DeMent perfectly captured the vulnerability that endears Jinx to me, while singing beautifully on the solo and the group numbers. And yes, he nailed those high notes on Cry. While my undying love and loyalty remains with Scott Coulter, the first performer I saw in the role, DeMent has given him serious competition for my affections and I proclaim him my second favorite Jinx of all time.
Hess is a fabulous dancer, but here he reins in his natural ability to blend seamlessly into the ensemble choreography, while giving a very centered and moving performance as Frankie. And what a voice! Last season I was so focused on what he was doing physically that I never really paid much attention to his singing. I was both happy for Hess, and sad for myself and other Mac-Haydn regulars, to read that he will be departing right after Forever Plaid to play Skimbleshanks in the national tour of Cats. The Mac is doing Cats too later in the season, and I had looked forward to calling Hess my very own Felix the Cat, but it seems I have to share him with the whole country. Oh pooh!
Paul is a very handsome fellow, with an irresistible twinkle in his eye. I knew that he could sing and dance, but I was less sure of his acting until seeing his hilarious turn here as Sparky. Give this guy more rougish roles! As Brandon said, Paul was perfect playing the guy who thinks he’s Frank Sinatra and is in fact just…Sparky. He can sing Perfidia to me any day!
The best possible performer to play Smudge is one who can make himself look too nerdy to sing bass in the first place, so that when he opens his mouth and those wonderful sounds come out you say “Wow!” Quinn fit the bill to a T. His Smudge is a gawky and dyslexic nebbish with a golden throat.
Director Robert Randle has found the heart of Forever Plaid, an element of the show more important than its very funny comedy bits. Ultimately, your heart breaks for these boys who, although (thankfully) they sing much better dead than alive, never had a prayer of making it big in the music industry. But the love and dedication they show for their craft, and their perpetual optimism about their pitiful careers playing bowling alleys, bar mitzvahs, and airport bars is beautiful to see. You gotta love the Plaids!
What I didn’t love in this production was the awkward sound design by Gwen Shandy which combined the use of the ubiquitous Mac-Haydn body mikes with hand-helds. The result was too much feedback and, worse still, a mediocre blending of the voices. The Plaids are a harmony group and if we can’t hear the harmony, well...
My other kvetch is that Randle, who started his Plaid career as Jinx in the original Off-Broadway production, and has performed in and directed it many times since, is too wedded to the original, very linear choreography, obviously created for a proscenium stage and not a theatre-in-the-round like the Mac-Haydn. The last production of Forever Plaid that I saw at the Mac did a much better job of retaining the gags inherent in the choreography, while consistently rotating the performers around to all sides of the audience. Randle’s version has at least a third of the audience missing the sight gags at any one time (I never did see Smudge’s schtick with his plaid during Scotland the Brave, but at least I knew what I was missing. A Plaid virgin would have felt very frustrated.)
The music for Forever Plaid is provided by Musical Director and pianist Phillip Kirchmann and bassist Todd Hendricks. They manage to be both supportive and unobtrusive, except when called upon to don a Carmen Miranda headdress or some such foolishness. But Kirchmann’s real magic unfolded during rehearsal when he took four strong soloists and melded them into a harmonic whole.
Tirza Chappell has done a nice job with the standard set of Plaid costumes, although I have seen spiffier tuxedos in the final scene. The starry-starry set is by Jason Cross, and Andrew Gmoser has done his usually professional job with the lights.
Forever Plaid runs through June 4 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs about two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006