Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
In case you’re new to GailSez, let it be known that Gail and Brandon (my younger son) are huge Plaid Heads. We’ve lost count, but we have seen more than a dozen productions in eight states. I famously booked the family in to the Flamingo Hilton when we went to Las Vegas in 2000 largely because Forever Plaid was playing there.
Yesterday was Plaid Day 2008! I woke up singing Three Coins in the Fountain. My nephew Aaron put on his plaid shorts in honor of the occasion – this was to be his first time seeing The Plaids. We loaded the CD into the car stereo and sang lustily the whole way down to New Lebanon (Well, we had to teach Aaron how to sing Mathilda.) When we got to the Barn the place was packed (a little bird told me it was Abe and Joan Phelps 50th Wedding Anniversary – WHOOPEEE!) Everyone had a fabulous time. We were not the only Plaid Heads in the crowd.
That should have been apparent from the outset because Forever Plaid is one of the four shows picked by survey by the 2007 audiences for this 25th Anniversary Season, and that’s no surprise because the two earlier productions the Theater Barn mounted of this show were wonderful. Everyone has fond memories of The Plaids at the Barn – especially me because their 1995 production was my first and still one of my favorites – and so the question here was not would this be a good production, but how could they top their last one?
The answer is: Remarkbaly easily. This production of Forever Plaid provides more laughs and great music than is legally allowed in one 90-minute show.
Quick plot synopsis: Forever Plaid is a four-man harmony group who were killed in 1962 on their way to play the Pittsburgh Airport’s “Fuselounge” when their cherry-red Mercury convertible was broadsided by a bus full of Catholic virgins on their way to New York City to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For various astro-physical reasons having something to do with the hole in the ozone layer, they get to come back to earth just once, just long enough to give one last concert. What you see is that show. Luckily The Plaids sing much better in death than they did in life, so the music – all easy-listening standards of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – is delightful and beautifully sung, and the comedy stems directly from what each of the four actors is able to bring to his character.
Now I will explain to you what my dear departed Mother never understood. The Plaids are actors playing members of a singing group. There is not now, nor was there ever, a real live group called Forever Plaid. This is fiction. It is theatre. So when I say I have seen more than a dozen productions of this show that means I have seen more than 50 different actors. The show is always the same (Brandon and I can both recite and sing every word, but he is much better at remembering the choreography than I am) but the actors are always different.
Why is the choreography always pretty much the same? Each production we’ve seen has been directed and choreographed by a different artist, but a gentleman named James Raitt is credited with “Musical Continuity Supervision and Arrangements.” In other words, the original direction and choreography of creator Stuart Ross is pretty much set in stone. Again, the individual artistic outlet here is the characters. Each director/choreographer –a and here its Theater Barn Artistic Director Michael Marotta – gets to pick his/her own cast and help them create endearing and memorable renditions of Frankie, Sparky, Jinx and Smudge.
So I have seen a lot of Plaids in my day – I joked once that I had indeed see The Good, The Plaid, and The Ugly – and I want you to know that I have my standards. I don’t pop my cork for every Plaid I see. In general Jinx is my fav Plaid, but I have been known to go for Sparky or Frankie on occasion, and once even for Smudge. Here the Best Plaid is clearly Hernando Umaña’s Sparky, with Wade Elkins’ Frankie a close second runner-up.
Umaña, who barely looks a day over 15, is tall and lanky and geeky and just plain hilarious. This is just a funny, funny guy. He had me laughing almost continuously. His solo on Perfidia was perfection, and I loved when he bounded straight up and down with excitement, as if he had springs built into his shoes. I don’t think I have ever seen a truly insane Plaid, but Umaña’s performance definitely had that edge to it. He reminded me just the teeniest bit of Jimmy Johansmeyer, who acted and designed fabulous costumes for many years at the Barn. I suppose that means I would enjoy seeing Umaña in a Charles Ludlam play* as well...
Marotta has directed his talented foursome to play The Plaids in deadly earnest, which works wonderfully well. My nephew pointed out that Elkins looked just like Eddie Haskell (from Leave It To Beaver) only he really WAS sincere, not smarmy. Elkins’ program bio claims that playing Frankie has been a long-time dream, and I can see why. He is ideally suited to the role, which I have seen played with much more unctuous machismo. This is what I mean when I say that Forever Plaid is all about the director and actor’s choices for the characters. Those lounge-lizard Frankies have each worked in their own productions, but here I could think of no one better than Elkins, and no better way to play the role than as the groups level-headed Den Mother. Frankie gets a lot of solos, which Elkins handles superbly.
As I said, Jinx is my favorite Plaid, and so I have especially high standards for that role – standards set by Scott Coulter, the young man who played Jinx at the Barn in 1995 and went on to play him in the National Plaid Tour. While Rick Desloge sang beautifully (Jinx is the high tenor of the group) he was not very good at blending vocally – and there is nothing more important than blending in close four-part harmony (as per the Osterizer School of Harmonic Theory). Desloge also brought too much assurance to the role – Jinx is obviously written as a very shy man, and Desloge looked way too at home on stage.
Christopher Johnson was a strong Smudge – Smudge is the bass and Johnson provided wonderful deep tones for the harmony and his solo on Sixteen Tons – and my only complaint about him was that he looked just a tad too old to be a convincing Plaid. In my book, all Plaids have to be able to pass for 20-something. I don’t care if in real life they’re all grandfathers, they just have to LOOK under 30 because if these poor schmucks are any older than that and still working odd jobs while rehearsing in the back of a plumbing supply warehouse waiting for their big break, they cease to be lovable and naïve young nerds and turn into sorry 40-year-old virgins.
As you will find explained in your program, The Plaids are the Good Guys. Unfortunately, as we all know, good guys finish last. It is ironic that the Barn is presenting Forever Plaid immediately before Grease because when we think of the 1950’s we think of the latter, but most people who actually lived through that decade were more like The Plaids than Danny Zuko and his greaser T-Birds. We just all wish we had been cool in our adolescence, like The Fonz, when we all know that we were actually Potsie. The Plaids are definitely Potsies.
I will be fascinated to see how many “Plaids” will stick around for Grease. Elkins will be playing Kenickie, and I hope the other three get a chance to show us their “naughty side” as well. (Shows don’t come much more squeaky clean than Forever Plaid or more raunchily coarse than Grease.)
This really is a show that a 51-year-old and a 19-year-old and a 12-year-old can see together and enjoy. It is clean and funny and not too long. The Ed Sullivan show bit – always a highlight of any Plaid performance – is a perfect example of the intergenerational appeal. I remember Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet who often exchanged banter with Sullivan. Brandon knows who/what he was through constant Plaid exposure and my explanations. Aaron doesn’t know him from a hole in the wall, but its always funny when a grown man puts on mouse ears and talks in a squeaky voice. So we all laugh. This is a good thing.
Earlier on Plaid Day I was chatting with a friend about the theatre (what else is there to chat about??) and was saying how much I had enjoyed Waiting for Godot and how excited I was to see Forever Plaid. This gal looked at me quizzically and said, “You certainly manage to enjoy a wide variety of theatre.” Yes, yes, I do! And I’m proud of it! And if there is anything I want to communicate to you, my loyal readers, it’s that the great joy of theatre in this region is the fact that you CAN see and enjoy excellent productions of Waiting for Godot and Forever Plaid in one week. Are we lucky or what?!?!
Forever Plaid runs through August 17 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for all ages. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
*Small “In” joke – I once expressed a desire to see Johansmeyer in a Ludlam play and the Barn promptly cast him in a most enjoyable production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Will lightening strike twice? A girl can only hope.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008