A joyous welcome of the new year is still going strong downtown at the tiny Cabaret Theatre, and the celebration includes fireworks provided by Forever Plaid, the good-natured, enthusiastic and vocally demanding musical presented by Arizona Onstage Productions.
The show is such an upbeat, feel-good experience that you can't help but smile and savor the good vibrations as four young men get to fulfill their dream of doing the show they never got to do before they were sent to an early grave. They are generously allowed to come back to Earth for this one shot, and they make the most of it.
It's a silly convention, but it works. Maybe it feeds our own fantasies of getting that one chance we think is gone forever—before we made a choice or two that derailed a dream or buried bold hopes.
In the early 1960s, Smudge (Daniel Lopez), Sparky (Daniel Gilmore), Jinx (Brian Levario) and Francis (Jeremy Vega), bonded by their participation in the audio-visual club in high school, yearned to find an admiring audience for their tight four-part harmonies, in the tradition of the Four Freshmen and the Crew Cuts. They were nerdy, each with some sort of physical malady—Jinx is prone to nosebleeds, Frankie has asthma—and they are not sure they are any good. But they have practiced earnestly and they have dreamed big.
On their way to perform their first big show, at the airport Hilton, they are killed when their car crashes into a busload of Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. (Oh, the irony.) The girls are fine, the Beatles are better and the Plaids are, well, dead.
But they have another chance, and we are there for them. Turns out it's a pretty wonderful opportunity for them and for us.
The show is a revue, written and originally directed by Stuart Ross, with songs from the era that are hard not to love: "Three Coins in a Fountain," "Moments to Remember," "Rags to Riches." Directed by Kevin Johnson, artistic director of Arizona Onstage, the guys are hard not to love as well. They are talented, but not slick. They know they have an unusual opportunity and, incredulous, they are at first tentative to embrace it. But the minute they open their mouths, we smile, and our feedback boosts their confidence. They blossom—in fits and starts, perhaps, but they grow into their dream.
Fine efforts by musical director/pianist Bill Patterson and bassist Dylan DeRobertis are indispensible and some very silly choreography by Samantha Cormier is executed by the guys with the utmost seriousness. Johnson also gives them some funny business, which supplements the string of songs, the funniest of which is probably the run-through of an entire Ed Sullivan Show episode in a little more than three minutes.
But the songs are the heart of the show, and the quartet does a really fine job. Not perfect, but really good. Of course, the setup provides built-in tolerance for a few less than harmonious moments. But unquestionably these actors get it right most of the time. And there is such a sweetness and innocence in their efforts that we are rooting for them all the way.
Their personalities are revealed as they work through the show, and there are holes in their characterizations that reflect some inadequacies in acting prowess. But they each give us a pretty clear idea of who these young men are, and their sincerity and obvious love of what they are doing translates into an irresistible charm.
The technical aspects of the show, especially the lighting and sound, are demanding, and they are executed well. The set is sufficient and unobtrusive and the tiny stage manages to hold the musicians, the boys and their escapades, except when their enthusiasm playfully spills into the audience.
Because Johnson and his crew aspire to true professionalism, I will pick on a couple of things. The costumes we see initially work well; the black trousers, subdued plaid vests and matching bow ties and white dinner jackets are perfect. But deep into the show, a box is delivered to the guys onstage in a very hokey exchange with a woman of unknown origin. In this package are the plaid sports jackets, which signify the epitome of true "Plaid-ness." Unfortunately, it is possibly the ugliest plaid ever woven. And something to remember when working with plaid—the stripes need to match, which was not the case for all the jackets handed around. After the work these guys have done, and the smartness displayed in other aspects of the production, this summoned undesirable attention. (No costume designer was noted.)
Another detail that could have addressed better was hairstyles. Wigs can be hard to deal with, if that is the way to go, but a shaved head is unquestionably not of the period.
The show also seemed a little long. It is a one-trick pony, after all, and the songs have a similar feel and energy. And although its pacing seemed fine, and the running time is just a little more than 90 minutes, it felt like just a bit too much of a good thing.
But a good thing it is. Heartfelt performances, fondly remembered—and finely rendered—songs, an infectious energy: All these are generously offered and they energize and unite a willing and receptive audience. A couple of hiccups cannot discount the fine efforts that result in terrific entertainment.