I saw dead people Saturday night — with heart and soul.
They weren’t ghouls, zombies or anything like that. No, these “dead” people were members of a fictional 50s musical group called “Forever Plaid” when they were alive.
It’s fitting that one of the songs they sung was “Heart and Soul.” Because the four cast members of the Off-Broadway musical revue “Forever Plaid,” playing in a quality production at the Beck Center for the Arts through Oct. 12, sang with heart and soul. They also displayed deft comedic timing, versatile, sweet moves and energy. This nostalgic, ingratiating revue has won over the hearts of many and prompted sequels.
“Forever Plaid” isn’t a randomly cobbled together concert of 50s songs. Instead, it’s a story of a group of music-loving men who come to realize that in life, they did what they loved to do. So what if they weren’t famous or performed in big-name venues? As one of the foursome says, “We had more than our share. Rehearsing in the stockroom was our Madison Square Garden. Singing in the upholstered comfort of the Mercury was our Carnegie Hall. The opening of the Stroudsburg Sears was our ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ And it was good, dammit.”
The show isn’t really about getting second chances — although these types of second chances, obviously, occur only through our willing suspension of disbelief, which all of us brings to the theater. Four guys, Sparky, Smudge, Jinx and Frankie, discovered they shared a love of music, got together and dreamed of becoming like their idols. They rehearsed in the basement of Smudge’s family’s plumbing supply company. They almost performed at their first big gig. But they were slammed broadside by a school bus on the way, killing them instantly (“We were slammed by a bunch of Parochial virgins,”) one character opines. The youngsters were “eager Catholic teens” on their way to see The Beatles make their U.S. television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The youngsters miraculously weren’t injured.
But these grown men harbor no ill will toward the bus driver. They enter the theater singing a heavenly melody and holding lit candles, clad in white tuxedos. They ask an audience member what year it is and are shocked to learn it’s 2014. The play is peppered with humor, as in when Sparky says, “We could make the biggest comeback since Lazarus.”
Show author Stuart Ross places songs so they correspond to what the Forever Plaid guys talk about (and they talk plenty throughout and interact with the audience, so beware you shysters).
The actors sing tunes such as “Moments to Remember” “The Golden Cardigan” and “Catch a Falling Star,” backed by able conductor and pianist Bryan Bird, percussionist Bill Hart and bassist Kevin Aylward. At one point, the actors note they never managed to pick up their new plaid tuxedos. The moment segues into a song, “Moments to Remember,” dedicated to anyone who’s ever attended a prom. The song’s also fitting because these men are reminiscing on their lives.
Ross has given each character a different personality, which adds variety to the revue.
Francis (a charming, confident, esteem-building Shane Patrick O’Neill) is the group’s leader and caretaker.
Jinx (an introverted, visibly tense Matthew Ryan Thompson) is shy and doesn’t always recall what song comes next. To add humor, he occasionally gets a nosebleed when he sings above an “A.”
Smudge (Brian Altman, clad in nerdy, dark glasses and insecure) is the group’s worrier, always assuming the audience won’t like him. His ailment: He has a chronic nervous stomach.
An anecdote Smudge shares, about how he used to hang around his parents’ diner and received records from the “jukebox lady,” provides some insight into how at least one of the characters developed a love of music.
Then there’s Sparky, often the spark of the show (played by Josh Rhett Noble as an exuberant, funny performer with a goofy smile and a tendency to show off). He’s the group’s clown and loves singing solos.
The choreography is creative and diverse; the actors don’t stand still as statues at their microphones while singing or chatting with each other or the audience. Credit goes to director/choreographer Martin Cespedes for his playful, vivacious direction. He ensures that despite the characters’ diverse personalities, when they’re singing as one, they’re comfortable, outgoing and dynamic. It’s as though performing makes the characters lose their inhibitions.
Bravo also to lighting designer Joseph Carmola for bathing the stage in a variety of colors at different times, reinforcing the fact this fictional singing group is called “Forever Plaid.” The lighting also enhances mood; the stage darkens, for example, when the characters turn serious.
Scenic designer Aaron Benson’s simple but effective nightclub-like backdrop features structures with bright lightbulbs and what looks like stars in the heaven. It's a wise choice for a heavenly musical revue.