Forever Plaid by Stuart Ross, with musical arrangements by James Raitt. Directed by Michael Marotta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The Plaids: Rick Desloge, Hernando Umana, Wade Elkins, Christopher Johnson
"...getting lost in a D# minor chord"
When four young men, a close harmony quartet, are suddenly killed in a freak automobile accident - their car is hit by a school bus full of Catholic school girls (all virgins) on their way to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show (remember The Beatles? Remember the Ed Sullivan Show?) - the world is deprived of what they themselves describe as the next great "guy group," already a dying trend in the music business. Robbed by death of their big chance to perform in a decent venue, the boys are suddenly given a chance in 2008 to return to earth and sing once more for an audience of potential fans. Thatís us. Thatís the plot. Got it? Good. Now sit back and relax and enjoy one of the most enjoyable shows ever seen at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York.
It may help to know who Ed Sullivan was or what his show was like. It may help to know who The Beatles were and how their style of music affected the world of popular song. On the other hand you may not need to know anything about any of this. Just know that this is the nostalgia slot of the summer season.
Director Michael Marotta gives us "Moments to Remember" filled with "Heart and Soul" as he loads "Sixteen Tons" of talent into this "Shangri-La" road to "Rags or Riches" for the Plaids. The songs are the songs of the 1950s, the popular tunes that still litter period movies and piled up LPs and 45's in our basements. In that era when "Love" was "a Many Splendored Thing" guys could still get together in the garage after school and work on the close harmonies that brought groups like The Four Aces and The Temptations and The Kingston Trio into prominence. The dreams were no different than those of the groups that followed, but the sounds were something else. Hearing those sounds, live and in person, again makes this ninety minute one-act musical so much more fun than the plot would seem to allow. Nostalgia isnít everything, but boy it helps.
The talent on the Columbia County stage is terrific. Four young men making their local debuts in this production, all of them professional enough to be seasoned Actors Equity members, give what could be called the performance of their lives as the revived quartet. Sparky and Jinx are step-brothers; Frankie is the groupís lead-man; Smudge is the voice of reason and the only one wearing glasses. Smudge also takes the low voice in the quartet harmonies and provides the bass tones for "Sixteen Tons." Smudge is played by Christopher Johnson who also solos on "Rags to Riches" and plays the inimitable Sunday night variety show host, Sullivan. He has a most wonderful comic sensibility, a sober-sided underplayed humor.
Frankie is played by the tallest in the group, Wade Elkins. His earnestness is the touchstone here and he plays it to the hilt. Vocally he takes the lead in many songs and solos more often than anyone other than Jinx. Elkins plays the honesty of this character without blinking. His performance helps to bind us to the bizarre reality of what is happening on stage.
Rick Desloge is Jinx and Hernando UmaŮa is Sparky. Together and apart they have immense appeal. Sparkyís mother is married to Jinxís dad and that is the link between them. Clearly they have enjoyed a friendship that is bound up more in their mutual love of the music they make than in the awkward family relationship that keeps them side by side. The friendship they feel is as glorious as the vocalism that they produce. Desloge is adorable - there is no other word for him. Every time he sings, every time he speaks to the audience or to his compatriots there is a joy that bursts out of him, visible in his smile, audible in his voice. His body plays his emotions front and center. He is ninety percent pride and itís extraordinary.
UmaŮa is the most fun of the foursome. His face is perpetually in motion, his eyes expressive and his hands constantly doing something. The choreographed movement for each song seems to provide him with a reason for existing. When he sits in quiet conversation with his brother he becomes a different man. It is the music and camaraderie that gives him animation and life. The actor here knows how to make this work and make it real, even emotionally telling. Leading the vocal in "Perfidia" truly gives him a chance to shine as does his heartfelt tribute to Perry Como (does anyone remember him?).
Marotta is in his glory as a director with this show. The close harmony, the fifties-style movement, the involvement of the on-stage music duo of piano and bass (Bravo Adam Jones and Ray Jung!) and even the audience participation which cannot be pre-set and which provides the quartet with another period element that has been pervading the Berkshire region this summer since the opening night of "...Spelling Bee." This director truly gets the special needs of this musical and he has been fortunate in casting four actors who are not only willing to do what is asked of them, but have seemingly responded to even the smallest, most meticulously directed moments.
On a simple set, in costumes that reek of the period - you can almost detect the mothballs (remember mothballs?) with concert style lighting that has a most wonderful theatricality, this show plays out its fantasy of last chance opportunities and songs you can sing in the parking lot with charm, grace, style and effect.
And is this the perfect lead-in to the final show of the Theater Barn's "Summer" season? Weíll know when Grease opens in a few weeks. For now, however, its guy group time and for someone like me who actually mourned the loss of this style of singing when I was growing up, it is the perfect opportunity to join Jinx and "Cry."
Forever Plaid plays at the Theater Barn on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York through August 17. For tickets please call the box office at 518-794-8989.