FOREVER PLAID: Heavenly Harmony
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069
Performances: July 19 – August 25, 2019
Ticket Prices: $44
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
Forever Plaid, the final production of the Va-Rep Hanover 2018/2019 season is a humorous heavenly harmonic hash guaranteed to make you pat your feet and smile. In the barely-there plot, a quartet of young singers on the way to a big gig at the Airport Hilton gets killed by a school bus full of Catholic high school girls (why this is important I’m not sure), on their way to watch the Beetles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show (which does become important later.) The four find themselves returning from some sort of limbo where they have spent the last 55 years for one last chance to perform in front of a big audience. The accident happened in the 1964, and one member of the quartet asks the audience what year it is. On Thursday, the audience member, perhaps flustered, initially gave a false date, in the 1950s, before admitting it was 2019.
This is not the only instance of audience participation. In another scene a compliant woman named Nora was charmed onstage to play piano with Sparky (while Travis is on his union break), and the entire audience is corralled into a sing-along on the song “Matilda.” The quartet brings instruments into the audience for those who care to participate in a hands-on experience, and Nora, by the way, left the stage with a commemorative plaid dental floss and a certificate with her name on it.
The shenanigans are carried on with amusing awkwardness – one member of the four is often out of step and depends on antacids to tame his nervous stomach, one hyperventilates, one has a mild speech impediment, and the fourth is prone to nosebleeds – by Mitchell Ashe (Sparky), PJ Llewellyn (Smudge), Ian Page (Jinx), and Caleb Wade (Frankie). Two, Jinx and Smudge, I think (it’s hard to keep up) are even step-brothers, and in one touching scene reminisce about a childhood tradition of family TV night. They watch, what else, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The “band” consists of Travis West on piano and David Yohe on bass. They all sing well, even when making mistakes on purpose, while rotating through a veritable warehouse of wacky props, from six foot plumbers’ helpers (plungers) to straw hats and a traditional nun’s wimple.
Ashe, Llewellyn, Page, and Wade seem to have as much fun playing these characters as the audience does watching and listening to them. Wade, as the group’s leader, shows equal parts confidence and compassion, which seems even more amazing considering that the group leads off with, “We’re Forever Plaid, and we’re dead.” My favorite part of the show, however, is when The Plaids perform the entire “Ed Sullivan Show” (that ran on CBS from 1948 – 1971) in three minutes and eleven seconds – including the animal acts, puppets, musical acts, comedians, and even Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.
Forever Plaid, written by Stuart Ross and first performed off-Broadway in 1989, was directed by Wes Seals with musical direction by Travis West. Both keep the pace moving at just the right speed (45rpm). Terrie Powers’ set is simple – arches, silver curtains, stars, a rounded stage – and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting sets just the right tone. Marcia Miller Hailey’s white dinner jackets are simple and classy, and the long-awaited arrival of the group’s plaid tuxedo jackets doesn’t occur until near the end of the one-act show that runs just under 90 minutes. The sound design by Derek Dumais makes everything clear and easy to understand, and the choreography (no credit is given, so I assume they retained Ross’ original choreography) is charmingly corny.
There are more than a dozen songs, beginning with “Three Coins in a Fountain” and ending with “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the song they were rehearsing in their red Mercury convertible when they were killed. In between there is a wide variety of musical numbers, from the Caribbean medley to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” “Perfidia,” which was inspired by the quartet’s collective crush on their high school Spanish teacher, to one of my favorites, the energetic “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby.” There are plenty of period and time-related references that might fall flat on anyone under the age of 50, and “The Ed Sullivan Show” seems to be a unifying thread, but Forever Plaid is a joyous, feel-good musical revue that favors naivete over controversy.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten