The audience participation bit in this show is not piano playing, but handbell ringing, which is fun if not incredibly challenging. But, in an attempt to move the guys' devotion to singer Perry Como to a more challenging level, Como himself appears via video, with the guys singing backup to him. This is creative, but brings with it the danger that Como is more interesting on screen that the actors are live. He also looks and sounds uncomfortably like the better-known Bing Crosby, which is just confusing.
I enjoyed the repeated references to Rosemary Clooney, though the script really doesn't explain who she was. And some of the bits from "Forever Plaid" are repeated for no real point. The guys perform a number using plungers instead of microphone stands, an usher brings in a box, they perform an homage to Ed Sullivan (with some new bits, and some old bits--Wagnerian soprano, The Singing Nun, etc.), Smudge has a sentimental monologue while opening a suitcase, Jinx puts tissue up his nose after it bleeds, and Sparky is forced to play the piano when the pianist inexplicably leaves the stage ("Strong union," Frankie theorizes). Some of us have seen ALL of this before.
Were I to get overly picky, I would complain that the sound design (by Barry G. Funderburg) doesn't make enough distinction for the times when the foursome sings with their handheld microphones, as opposed to when they are amplified as actors using their headpiece mics. And I thought it very odd that they never seemed to stand in the order that ALL male quartets use (Tenor I, Tenor II, Baritone, Bass). I never saw them in that lineup, which struck me as very peculiar. But again, maybe I know too much?
I don't know. The opening night audience seemed attentive if quiet, though the buzz in the lobby was very positive. And yes, the boys sing very well, if not entirely like they've been blending their whole lives. The ending of the show didn't seem to have quite the payoff that was promised (do they go back to heaven, or not?). They just exited during the blackout, and returned for the bows. Hmm.
Ann N. Davis's scenic design is pretty spectacular, actually, with multiple levels of a nightclub/theater stage of 1960s or 70s vintage. My only caveat to that is that the boys were awfully far from William Underwood's three-piece band (I understand that he added a third player, percussion and synthesizer player Ethan Deppe, to the orchestration calling for just his piano and Jamie Martinez's upright bass). Brenda Winstead's costumes were handsome and detailed and right on (plaid dinner jackets for Act I, and red cardigans with plaid pants for Act II). Shelley Strasser-Holland lit the proceedings excitingly. And Winstead also provided the props (far more than would fit in Smudge's suitcase).
Overall, William Pullinsi's direction of this holiday contender hits enough of the basics to get by. And Nicole Miller's choreography is serviceable enough. There's nothing really objectionable going on, if you don't look too closely. But there are some missed opportunities to treat the material with more care than seems to have been taken.
And the material given to them is hit-and-miss. I'm not even sure what the show is actually called! It may be called, "Forever Plaid Presents 'Plaid Tidings': A Special Holiday Edition." If so, then it's understandable that so much material is repeated from the first show. But the script has the actors tell us that this is their second time to return to earth and perform, not that this is the first time, with the unexpected happiness that it's for a holiday performance. Ross tries to have it both ways, I think.
Theatre at the Center was playing catch-up with quality from the get-go, and whether they caught up or not depends on your expectation, I suppose. These are certainly talented performers, and the songs and time period they present are fondly remembered my many--deservedly so. But just imagine if the show contained even more holiday songs! Or more fresh jokes and bits. Or a band that wasn't so far from the audience. Or an ending that had a bigger, clearer payoff. These singers, and the kinder, gentler show business that created Alvin and the Chipmunks, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Mr. Santa," "The Christmas Song" and so many more classic holiday songs, all deserve a better way to engage their willing audience. I wanted more. Can you give me more?
"PLAID TIDINGS" runs November 15-December 23 at the Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, in Munster, Indiana. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. Individual ticket prices range from $38-$42. For more information, visit www.TheatreattheCenter.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow
PHOTOS: (from top) Rod Thomas as Francis; Scott Stratton, Rod Thomas, Jonathan Wagner and Frank J. Paul; Frank J. Paul, Jonathan Wagner, Scott Stratton and Rod Thomas.