Have a hankering for a malt soda? Want to return to the days when music was more than the strains coming from the burrito cart? Wish that dating meant holding hands at Lover’s Lane instead of selecting “In a Relationship” on Facebook? Congratulations, you’ve got ’60s nostalgia.
In a Sudler-funded production directed by Ashley Rodbro ’09 at the Off Broadway Theater, “Forever Plaid” capitalizes on that overwhelming desire to listen to the sounds of doo-wop that makes even the most reserved Yalie burst out in a rendition of “Papa Loves Mambo.” This light-hearted musical comedy tastes like vanilla ice cream on a warm, sunny day and has the distinctive feeling of a pink sweater set.
Originally written, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross, “Forever Plaid” follows the story of a barbershop quartet from the 1960s, cosmically resurrected and allowed to return to Earth to perform the show they never finished. Given this opportunity, “The Plaids” go after their dreams, not of fame or prosperity, but of musical self-fulfillment. They only seek to conclude their showcase with the perfect chord.
A musical introduction and voice-over take the audience back 43 years to 1964 with a tone of unexpected mystery. Strikingly, the overriding sentimental and comedic tone mixes with an undercurrent of science fiction. The play hints at themes related to time and mortality but does not delve into these deeper issues. But the twist of science fiction makes this production stand out among others like it.
Despite its syrupy surface, the play manages to develop the characters of the four lovable singers — Frankie or Francis (Sam Bolen ’10), Sparky (Will Clifton ’07), Jinx (Tim Duncheon ’10) and Smudge (Nathan Little ’10). The sizeable production crew accentuates the cast of four main characters or six if you count the musicians affectionately known to the audience as Larry, the pianist (Zak Sandler ’08) and Uncle Chester on bass (Bobby Gibbs ’10).
The actors sport costumes enhanced by plaid bow ties, cummerbunds and pocket squares. They are generally awkward — the type of guys referred to in the program’s dedication note as “good guys who wheeled the projector carts for the AV club.” The musical is designed to make the audience love these four resurrected singers, and they are admittedly hard to resist.
Smudge exploits this sentiment when he woos the audience, saying “To see you here, we’re deeply glad, deeply grateful and deeply plaid.”
Clearly, the characters are valued primarily for their humor, but their appeal is nonetheless couched in genuine feeling. Moments of sentimentality and laughter are slightly tinged by deeper emotions, like fear and sadness, regret and uncertainty. But for the most part, the play is overwhelmingly light and airy.
The minimalist set of a single, centered trunk and four microphones against a backdrop of purple walls puts much of the play on the performers. Dramatic changes in lighting compensate for the generally constant set and, along with scenes full of props and stage business, break the potential monotony of the background.
Generally, the emphasis on performance focuses the merits of the production on the actors as they perform choreography that is sometimes complex, but always designed to draw focus from their nonexistent surroundings. Changes in positioning, references and innuendos provide the bulk of the comedy. Verbal and physical, its humor is largely derived from the quirky individualism of the characters themselves.
The piece is made all the more endearing by impromptu audience participation. “Forever Plaid” makes no qualms about being just what it is — cute. Predominately a series of love songs, it will have the audience, quite literally, singing along. The musical succession, punctuated by dialogue, can at times be tiresome, but the fatigue wears off quickly when humor inevitably comes to the rescue.
“Forever Plaid” succeeds in making the members of the audience laugh as a result of an impressive combination of stage presence and charismatic choreography, transforming an otherwise dangerously slapstick performance into one of more subtle humor. The audience leaves “Forever Plaid” smiling, if only because they got a balloon animal out of the deal.