Nostalgia for a lost age: Forever Plaid at the Mayfield, a review

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In their one review ever, in The Wiltsburg Times Chronicle, a nameless writer delivered the opinion that The Plaids’ sound “is to modern music what Formica is to marble.”

It is a measure of their infinite hopefulness that the guileless lads from Plaid  “chose to take this as a compliment.” And they even saved the clipping.

That’s the bowtie-and-Brylcreem ‘50s evoked by this affectionately cornball jukebox homage to the close-harmony guy groups of the era. The American Dream is still in working order. Sincerity rules over irony, even when it pertains to cardigans. Harmony is a many-splendored thing. Where do unresolved chords go? Not here, ladies and gentlemen, not here.

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

The fun of Kate Ryan’s Mayfield production of Forever Plaid — with its musically dexterous foursome of charmers —  is the playful way it negotiates between nostalgia for a lost age and light-handed mockery of its white-bread squareness.

It’s February 9, 1964. And four earnest amateurs with big dreams are en route to their first pro gig, at the Fusel Lounge in the Harrisburg, Pa. Airport Hilton (amusingly evoked by Ivan Siemens’ set, with Matt Schuurman’s video design). It all ends with a bang: a busload of Catholic schoolgirls going to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Yes, the lads meet their untimely end in a head-on collision — with rock.

“We’re the Plaids and we’re dead.” Forever Plaid is their reprieve. Thanks to a convergence of astral plains and an expanding hole in the ozone, not to mention the the cosmic power of harmony, Frankie (Stephen Greenfield), Sparky (Andrew MacDonald-Smith), Jinx (Farren Timoteo) and Smudge (Kamyar Pazandeh) are back from the Great Beyond after 54 years. They file apprehensively onto the stage in the dark, with candles, to do the concert they never got to give in life. O death, where is thy sting (and thy E-flat diminished seventh)? It is, says one Plaid looking on the bright side, “the biggest comeback since Lazarus.”

What you hear, in Stuart Ross’s early jukebox musical (it dates from the West Bank Cafe in New York in the late ‘80s), is a vintage collection of ‘50s guy-group classics, more than two dozen of them: Three Coins In The Fountain, Rags to Riches, Magic Moments, No Not Much, Moments To Remember Love Is A Many Splendored Thing…..

It’s the white end of the pop culture spectrum, the milieu owned by the likes of The Lettermen, The Four Aces, The Ames Brothers, Andy Williams, Perry Como, crooning over sunshine and falling stars. And when four eager-to-please white nerds, inordinately pleased with little staging coups like their plaid cumberbunds, go “ethnic” — they don straw hats to go Latino, or venture into calypso (with palm tree) — the results are, in every way but the musical, amusingly tone deaf.

Forever Plaid, Mayfield Dinner Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis

When the Plaids get a little wistful about the careers they might have had, or they sing the Plaid version of She Loves You (“she loves you … yessiree!”), you realize that the Catholic girls just hastened the inevitable. Sh’boom, dramatic irony.

The shrewd appeal of Forever Plaid is the musical expertise in four-part harmony of a cast who artfully perform as artless amateurs scrambling to do a home-made show. It wouldn’t be funny if the four couldn’t sing, beautifully, together. They do.

They have their little idiosyncracies. Greenfield’s Frankie, the MC, is, as in life, still wheezing asthmatically when the going gets tense. Pazandeh as Smudge, reaches for the Tums periodically. Timoteo’s Jinx has regular nosebleeds on challenging high notes. With his round-eyed double-entendres, MacDonald-Smith’s Sparky is in charge of the prim, deadpan narration, full of inadvertent double-entendres. “We’ll serenade your every affair.” 

Each has a star turn on a song. Pazandeh’s impressive account of the proletariat anthem 16 Tons, accompanying himself on a ketchup bottle, is a highlight, with amusingly bland annotations. “We work hard to sing about men who love, and we love to sing about men who work.”

And Cindy Kerr’s choreography, with its earnest guy-group synchronized moves just slightly gone wrong, is consistently funny onstage,

Their pièce de résistance is a frantic three-minute 11-second version of an entire Ed Sullivan season, a snapshot of life in the ‘50s, complete with Señor Wences, Topo Gigio, the Singing Nun, and a dizzy variety of magic, acrobatic, and animal acts. Holy cannoli, even the acquiring of an audience volunteer for a number seems unusually relaxed, since it’s also a homespun spoof of audience participation.

And there’s the music, songs preserved in amber. Shlock never sounded so tuneful. The rapport between the Plaids and their band, Ryan Sigurdson at a grand piano and Derek Stremel on bass, is supple and fun. And the sound (Harley Symington) is, as usual at the Mayfield, impeccable.

REVIEW

Forever Plaid

Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre

Written by: Stuart Ross

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring: Steven Greenfield, Andrew Macdonald-Smith, Kamyar Pazandeh, Farren Timoteo

Running: through July 29

Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca

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