Wisdom Bridge Theatre

There’s been a slew of this kind of show over the past few years: Pump Boys and Dinettes, Beehive, The Taffetas, Oil City Symphony. With their lightweight premises (“plot” is too strong a term) and their anthology approach to the pop-music past, they seem to be perfect party shows, no-risk entertainments for commercial producers looking for cash cows in between more serious, more expensive efforts. In fact, the risks are not inconsiderable: of the above shows, only the first, Pump Boys and Dinettes, was really successful at the box office. Oil City Symphony, the best of the bunch, suffered from marketing problems, due in part to its musical eclecticism (its characters, a male-female quartet, sang and played a repertoire that ranged from acid rock to gospel hymns, making the show hard for people to describe to their friends, which inhibited its word-of-mouth appeal). But The Taffetas, with its clear-cut Lennon Sisters image and hyperactive promotional strategies, didn’t fare any better.

So I suppose one could defend Forever Plaid being produced by a nonprofit, grant-seeking theater like Wisdom Bridge. I’d always thought the point of nonprofit houses was to accommodate shows that might be too risky for a commercial producer; I guess 1950s pop is no more a sure thing than Brecht or Beckett when it comes to dragging audiences away from their TVs and into the theater these days.

Forever Plaid relates the situation (“story” is too strong a term) of the Four Plaids, an aspiring quartet of Perry Como wannabes. Sparky, Jinx, Francis, and Smudge, four nice nerds who met in their high school audiovisual club, teamed up to sing American songs just as the British invasion was getting under way; en route to a gig, they were killed in a collision with a truckful of girls heading to a Beatles concert. (Get it?) Now, some 35 years later, our teen-angel heroes have returned from heaven for a brief reunion in Sparky and Jinx’s “semi-finished” suburban basement cum fallout shelter (nicely evoked in Kevin Rigdon’s detail-conscious set). The rest is history–pop-music history, that is–as, in an hour and a half, the four lads run through 22 songs, broken up by brief anecdotes from the lives they left behind.

Musically, the show is quite good–though not as good as Oil City Symphony, with its display of vocal and instrumental virtuosity. But it’s solidly sung, with a nice vibrant blend at the climactic points. The musical arrangements by James Raitt show a good ear for clear, swooping harmonies–often at the expense of the words and melodies of the songs, but that’s true to the style. (That many well-written tunes like “Cry,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”–all represented here–were ruined by the 1950s’ overblown musical equivalents of the decade’s flare-finned Chryslers is, probably accidentally, a pervasive theme of this show.) The singers’ choral blend rings true in the shimmering ninth chords and suspensions that dominate the arrangements and in the unison renditions of a Gregorian chant and a Scottish folk song that Raitt throws in for a little variety.

Theatrically, author and choreographer Stuart Ross gets plenty of comic mileage out of little funny bits–the characters’ quirky mannerisms, silly touches such as the tuxedo-clad quartet’s plaid bow ties and cummerbunds, clumsily choreographed group moves (swimming motions for “Three Coins in the Fountain,” for instance), and reliably nostalgia-inducing l950s teen shtick such as whoopee cushions, 45 RPM singles, and improvised four-handed piano renditions of “Heart and Soul.” The simplicity and smallness of these sources of humor allow Ross to save up for the big moments–a music-for-white-people audience-participation medley of old Harry Belafonte calypso hits, and a frantic three-minute takeoff on the old Ed Sullivan TV show, with the boys impersonating everyone from the Singing Nun to Elvis Presley to Topo Gigio.

Far less successful–here, I suppose, the responsibility lies with director Jeffrey Ortmann–are the efforts at real feeling or characterization or bite. The few supposedly accidental sexy double entendres seem woefully out of place; rather than making us laugh at the characters’ naivete, they remind us that these are, after all, only actors. Not that we’d ever forgotten; the worst thing in the show is its pervasive sense of playacting. When Leo Daignault gawkily adjusts his Clark Kent glasses and checks his nose to see if it’s bleeding after a dynamic tenor belt, the obviousness of the joke invalidates any poignance or humor it might have had; Rick Boynton’s obviously practiced skill as a musical-comedy actor (and the toothy, airplane-steward grin left over from his spaced-out closet-queen character in 1988’s Hair) robs his clownishly clumsy jive dancing of the credibility it needs to be funny. Tall, lanky Vincent Vogt has the rich baritone to pull off a number like Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” but he fails utterly to make us believe he’s the kind of guy who would keep a collection of discarded 45s–he lacks the romanticism or obsessiveness that a real pop addict would possess.

Only J. Gregory Davis combines the skills of a talented musical-theater performer with the sincerity–the belief in pop–to convince us he is what he says he is. Luckily, Davis has the most emotional speech in the show–a monologue about the heady joy of harmony singing–and he pulls it off with a real sense of commitment. There’s not just earnestness, but quiet exhilaration, when he speaks of his dedication to being “proud, pure, plaid.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.