“Forever Plaid” more wonderful than ever as Theater Barn opens fresh new production

The best “Plaids” ever at the Theater Barn
Theatre review by Gail M. Burns

I have lost track of how many productions of Forever Plaid I have now seen, but this time was special because I brought my 20-year-old nephew and he had never seen the show before. I had the pleasure of watching The Plaids worked their magic once again, and as we exited the theatre my nephew proclaimed that Forever Plaid was now his favorite musical of all time. The last show to earn that approbation was Cabaret, which actually IS one of the great masterpieces of 20th century musical theatre. What is it about this little piece of fluff that has made it so hugely popular over the last quarter of a century? It holds the record as one of the longest running shows on the Vegas strip – and this is a show with no scantily clad women (in fact, there are no women at all!) What makes Forever Plaid work?

One word: writing. Stuart Ross didn’t just craft a great line-up of late 1950’s/early 1960’s guy-group harmony tunes, he created a story and four distinct, loveable characters. Over the course of a mere ninety minutes you genuinely come to care about Frankie, Sparky, Jinx, and Smudge, even though you never learn their last names, or even their real first names except for Frankie/Francis. These four guys are the schleppy everymen we all knew or once were. Sort of the upbeat version of Seymour Krelborn, if he’d had pals instead of plants to hang out with.

For those of you who haven’t seen this show (where have you been for the past quarter century??) Forever Plaid is the story of a mid-20th century close harmony “guy group” who are dead. On February 9, 1964, en route to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos, they were driving in their cherry-red 1954 Mercury convertible and rehearsing their big finale when they were slammed broadside by a school bus filled with eager Catholic teens on their way to witness the Beatles make their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. The schoolgirls miraculously escaped injury. The members of Forever Plaid were killed instantly. Through the power of Harmony and the Expanding Holes in the Ozone Layer, in conjunction with the positions of the planets and all the other astro-technical stuff, they are allowed to come back to perform the show they never got to do in life.

The good news is that The Plaids sound MUCH better dead than they did alive. The bad news is they can’t stay here on earth with us after they finish their final chord.

My late mother was convinced that Forever Plaid was an actual musical group whose concerts I regularly attended. And just yesterday someone asked me hopefully if it was always the same four actors in every production. In two decades I have only once seen one repeat Plaid (Byron DeMent as Jinx.) The show itself is fairly bullet-proof – script is funny, music is great – so everything rides on the casting. I have seen Good Plaids and Bad Plaids. And I am happy to report that the cast director Trey Compton has assembled for the current production at The Theater Barn are Excellent Plaids.

More to the point, they are Different Plaids. When you see a show over and over there gets to be a certain sameness to it, especially here where the choreography is iconic wiith character-establishing gags built in, and therefore can’t be tampered with too much. Compton and his cast opened up new aspects to the characters that changed the depth and feel of the show without ruining the fun.

This cast appears to be very young, although I suspect they are about the average age for a Plaid cast. The worst thing you can do is cast Plaids who are obviously 30+, as that renders the characters pathetic instead of sympathetic, but Compton has cast actors who look barely out of high school. They look and act very young, very dorky, and painfully self-aware. I found this off-putting at the very start, but quickly realized that I was being shown a softer, gentler Forever Plaid, one more focused on the characters than the business of entertainment.

Tall and graceful, possessed of a 100 watt smile, Joey Alan makes Frankie the obvious leader of the group long before his impassioned monologue at the end of the show. Ricky Gee emanates a lanky goofiness as would-be lothario Sparky. And Andrew Martinelli creates the most painfully shy Jinx I have ever seen.

Andrew Pace was a complete revelation as Smudge, the bass of the group. Something about a deeper singing voice tends to lend an air of gravitas, but Pace was a lisping, four-eyed, effeminate geek from beginning to end, and I enjoyed his performance immensely. A gay (maybe) Plaid – who’d a thunk it?

I was also very impressed with Martinelli’s interpretation of Jinx’s early solo on “Cry.” The character traditionally makes a dramatic shift in the bridge of the song from barely audible terror to full out confident belting, which is usually played for laughs. But here Jinx’s shift was completely internal as the song itself, not the audience, carried him into a different level of performance. He was singing from the heart, and it was powerful stuff.

All four cast members are strong professional singers in their own right, and the script gives them plenty of opportunities to solo, but they also rein in their voices to achieve an excellent harmonic balance in the many group numbers where that is called for. The fine musical direction is by Matthew Russell, who appears on stage at the piano, along with bassist Michael Webb, throughout the show.

As my nephew’s reaction attests, Forever Plaid is a perfect family show, and this is a production with heart and soul. It is hilariously funny and filled with wonderful music from a decade not too long before our own. You do not have to know who Ed Sullivan is to enjoy the side-splitting send up of his weekly variety show. You do not have to know who Perry Como is to laugh at Sparky’s tale of stealing his carburetor to lure him to a Plaids performance. You just have to love to laugh and be serenaded by four talented young singers for an hour and half.

(l to r) Musical Director Matthew Russell, Ricky Gee (Sparky), Andrew Martinelli (Jinx), director Trey Compton, Joey Alan (Frankie), and Andrew Pace (Smudge).

(l to r) Musical Director Matthew Russell, Ricky Gee (Sparky), Andrew Martinelli (Jinx), director Trey Compton, Joey Alan (Frankie), and Andrew Pace (Smudge).

The Theater Barn presents Forever Plaid, written and originally directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross. Musical Continuity Supervisions and Arrangements by James Raitt. Directed by Trey Compton. Musical Director Matthew Russell. Set Designer, Abe Phelps; Lighting Designer, Allen Phelps; Costume Designer, Allison Gensmer. Cast: Joey Alan as Frankie (Francis), Ricky Gee as Sparky, Andrew Martinelli as Jinx, and Andrew Pace as Smudge. Performances July 28-August 7, 2016 at The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY 12125. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For information and reservations call (518) 794-8989. www.theaterbarn.com

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