Since its world premiere in Rochester at the old Downstairs Cabaret in the 1980s, Stuart Ross' Forever Plaid played across the country and around the world, and is still playing. An endearing new production is now at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre Center, one of four venues where our busiest little professional theater currently operates. It's really a modest entertainment, but a visit will show you why this irresistible show continues to please a wide range of audiences in all sorts of venues.
Basically, it's a concert by four amusing young guys who sing boy-group favorites from the '50s. The level of humor is indicated by an early gag title, "Love Is a Long and Slender Thing." But that's as suggestive as this squeaky-clean show gets, and you almost expect these clean-cut boys to blush when one says it. The pretense is that they are magically restored to life decades after dying in a car crash. They had been en route to picking up their plaid tux jackets for their first big gig as the group Forever Plaid. They are, of course, thrilled to be on a stage and singing, and they fall all over us, their audience. Literally. The clumsy falls and stumbles are choreographed to provide comedy and variety.
One number features "microphones" that are actually plumber's helpers with long poles. Jinx, the tenor, gets a nosebleed when he hits a high note, so he has to sing with feathery strips of tissue hanging from his nostrils. Smudge confuses left and right and offers wisdom like, "Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right when he said 'you can never go back to your house again'." They treat us to one verse of "Perfidia" in hideously pronounced Spanish (mujer becomes "moo-hair").
The period suggestions include Smudge's showing off his 45 rpm record collection. The one big physical comedy number is a mad take-off on the Ed Sullivan Show summarized in a little over three minuteswith the boys running on and off as acrobats, gymnasts, dog-trainers, clowns, ballet dancers, and whatnot while Jinx plays "Lady of Spain" on the accordion. It will get better: now it's frantic and funny but needs sharpening.
When musical director Carol Brown takes a "union break," the boys are left onstage without an accompanist, so Sparky plays the piano. After an imitation of the opening of the Grieg Piano Concerto #1, he goes into "Heart and Soul," while Frankie gets a woman from the audience to play the "on top" melody. I guess most people know the one-finger version of the right-hand part. And the boys harmonize on the song.
If all this sounds too cute, it isn't when it's played with open enjoyment by four young men with good singing voices and some clowning ability. These four haven't the vocal splendor to bring off the annoyingly built-up dramatic finale, but it's fun to see their joy at receiving a box with the legendary plaid tux jackets in it. They're horrible-looking, of course, so it's just as well that the guys played most of the show in white dinner jackets and plaid cummerbund sets.
We get to know the individual characters because each guy gets at least one solo number. Jack Beetle, as Jinx, the tenor, sings a very sweet version of "Cry" with a nice build-up for the finale but none of Johnny Ray's florid mannerisms. John Smiley, as Smudge, has a thin bass-baritone for "Sixteen Tons," but works well against the song's stereotype because he's too cute to be that tough. Later, he sounds great in an Elvis-like "Rags To Riches." Erik Hogan has several nifty speeches, acting a lot in the role of Sparky, especially when paying homage to Perry Como. Hogan sings "Catch A Falling Star" in a pretty, crooning high baritone. Don't be confused by Hogan's photo in the program. It looks nothing like him. Fortunately. Finally, Michael Indeglio's Frankie is the group's Personality Kid. Frankie has solos in "Matilda," "Chain Gang," and "Heart and Soul" that he sings pleasantly in an unexceptional voice. But Indeglio is an adorable, vivacious performer who animates the whole evening, as Frankie should.
I don't know who wouldn't like this show.
Forever Plaid by Stuart Ross plays Thursdays through Sundays through Sunday, August 10, at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre Center, 540 East Main Street. Shows are on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tix: $18-$24 (discounts for seniors, students, and groups).325-4370, www.downstairscabaret.com.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.