As my wife, Pat, and I headed for our car after seeing the latest production of “Forever Plaid,” I couldn’t help wishing that we were both young and single again. Then I could take her to see this show on what would have been the greatest date of her life. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve seen “Plaid”–along with “Plaid Tidings,” its holiday sequel. It used to be the signature favorite of Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre in Folsom/Rancho Cordova. So we were not especially excited by the prospect of another repetition.
Yet we were surprised and thrilled by the production, as if it were an entirely new experience. Hands down it was the best version of “Plaid” we’d every seen. Gary Stroman, a member of the original New York cast, directed a foursome as dazzling as any you’re likely to see in a musical, equally top flight for their voices, comic timing and versatility.
“Plaid’s” curious premise is that a quartet of modestly successful high school chums gets wiped out in an auto accident in 1964, on the way to the gig of their lives. En route to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos, they’re killed instantly when a bus—filled with parochial school teens—crushes their car. Through some rigmarole about harmony and the ozone layer, a divine power revives the four so they can give their scheduled performance before they’re absorbed into the eternal beyond.
“Plaid,” which premiered in 1990, bridges the gap between early, down-home male quartets and the rock revolution that gave us Elvis and the Beatles, a period celebrated by the Ed Sullivan show that ran from 1948 to 1971. (Personal note: I remember the night when Sullivan introduced America to the Beatles. As I listened, I shook my head, saying, “I don’t know what they’re singing but it ain’t music!” My prejudice continued until I caught myself humming their tunes.)
In the current production Chris Couch is Sparky, the Plaid’s cut-up baritone; J.D. Daw is Jinx, the high tenor and Sparky’s younger brother; Sean Hopkins is Smudge, the bespectacled bass; Justin Packard is Frankie, the caring leader; and Mark Turner, “the fifth plaid,” is the able understudy who can step into any of the roles. Each of them has played in other productions of “Plaid” in other parts of the country.
As they await the climactic arrival of their plaid jackets, they wear white jackets with plaid cummerbunds. A tradition of the Scottish highlands, plaid represents the comfort of home and hearth, each pattern signaling the social identity of the wearer. Among the show’s thirty numbers is “Scotland the Brave,” and true to form our quartet has to pretend to goof it up, with one member wearing his plaid sash on backwards and struggling to right it.
The running gag through the show, in fact, is having the quartet perform with the precision of circus acrobats, all the while pretending to be a collection of klutzes. They can do just about anything that showmanship demands, including fire eating, yet they fake onstage disasters, including chronic nosebleeds. Much of the fun of the show comes from admiring how well they succeed in playing “badly.”
The many old favorites we enjoy are from the thirties to the sixties, popularized by singers like Perry Como and Harry Belafonte. In fact the quartet encounters Como himself (who’s offstage, of course) during the show and serenades him with “Sing to me, Mr. C.” Among other numbers are the memorable “Catch a Falling Star,” “Heart and Soul,” “Lady of Spain,” “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Perfidia,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Included are a splash of Calypso and other Jamaican numbers like “Day-O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” and “Matilda,” performed in exotic costumes and with spectacular choreography by Stroman. “Matilda” also includes enthusiastic audience participation in the refrain.
The show, without intermission, takes about an hour and a half. Produced by the non-profit California Musical Theatre, it’s onstage as the first offering at CMT’s new Cosmopolitan Café, in downtown Sacramento. This classy combination of restaurant and theater offers food and drink at surprisingly moderate prices and is an ideal venue for cabaret entertainment, with a choice of tables or tiered seating with beverage counters. Performances run from Tuesday through Sunday, with ticket prices from $32 to $57. For more details call (916) 557-1198 or click http://www.californiamusicaltheatre.com/ or http://www.cosmopolitancabaret.com/