“PLAID TIDINGS” in Munster: Holiday Nostalgia for All Things Plaid
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by Paul W. Thompson
The musical "Forever Plaid," created in 1990 by writer/director Stuart Ross and the late musical director/arranger James Raitt (cousin to John and Bonnie), was and is a perennially popular staple of regional theaters looking for a small-cast, upbeat and moving musical to satisfy audiences of a certain age (meaning my parents, and your grandparents). That show remains Chicago's longest-running musical, racking up six and a half years at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre in the 1990s, in a production (replicating the off-Broadway original) that won four Jeff Awards and employed a whole generation of male musical theater singers here--singers who are slightly nerdy, somewhat funny and "move well." I am among them, as I was a stand-by, off and on, for over two years there. I even understudied Stephen Wallem, now "Thor" on the TV series "Nurse Jackie."
So, as familiar as I am with "Forever Plaid," I had never seen "Plaid Tidings" before Sunday night, at the press opening night for the show at the Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana (about 40 minutes from the Loop). I was eager to see it. But perhaps I know too much. Or am I too young? I don't know. This review has been very hard to write! Let me explain.
"Forever Plaid" is a strange theatrical animal. It's a hybrid between a songbook revue and a book musical, in that it features four characters who are performing a concert for us, the audience. Some would call that a framing device, others a premise, some a conceit, and others just don't give it a second thought. However, it does this sort of thing better than the shows which imitate it ("The Marvelous Wonderettes" comes to mind), in that the audience learns about, and learns to care about, the four guys in this semi-professional singing group who are now dead and come back to life in order to present the concert they never got the chance to perform back in 1964. (Got that?) Jinx, Frankie, Sparky and Smudge relate, mature and conquer, all the while performing some killer charts of the kind of American popular songs that were popular between World War II and the Vietnam War. It's Eisenhower and Kennedy--without Nixon.
About a decade ago, Stuart Ross created "Plaid Tidings" for the Pasadena Playhouse (he's an LA resident), and it's been making the rounds of theaters this time of year ever since. But what is it? It does feature some of the holiday songs that James Raitt arranged for the original production to perform as an encore during holiday time (most notably, a beautiful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and it reminds the audience of what happened during the first show, in case you never saw it, or you forgot. So far, so good. But it also includes a lot of the exact same lines of dialogue, without admitting to same, includes the same gaps in logic (is their name "Forever Plaid" or "The Plaids"?) and takes the audience and the characters on exactly the same emotional and dramatic arc. And it's longer than the first show was, so long that it requires an intermission. To me, this show as written feels cheaply derived, and unnecessarily sloppy. Think of some new jokes, please!
That said, the single best moment in the original show is repeated here, and is just as hilarious as it always will be (the silent bit during "Matilda"). And there are a few moments of new brilliance. The hip-hop "'Twuz the Nite B4 Xmas" is quite clever, and performed remarkably well by Munster's Frankie, Rod Thomas. This production's Jinx, Frank J. Paul, sounds fantastic and also shows mastery of physical comedy during "Besame Mucho/Kiss of Fire." And the glasses-wearing Smudge here, Scott Stratten, is a pretty good tap dancer ("Let It Snow"), in a turn that I think is not usually how this number is done. Munster's Sparky, Jonathan Wagner, is pretty funny, but seems to be doing a different show than the other three guys (my grandmother would say of him, "He's wacky!). Also, he looks and acts disconcertingly like Conan O'Brien's sidekick, Andy Richter. Go figure!
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