"Forever Plaid" - Theologically Suspect, Theatrically Sound

Wood Van Meter, Zander Lyons, Quinn Patrick Shannon and Brandon Lambert in "Forever Plaid"

As plots go, musical theater has had some doozies. From "Sweeney Todd to "Something Rotten" to "The Producers" to "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" and even further back to Gilbert and Sullivan, the suspension of disbelief has been well, - unbelievable.

The backstory for "Forever Plaid" fits quite nicely into the same mold  Turns out a quartet of crooners from Eastern Pennsylvania set out one day to pick up their plaid outfits en route to a performance at the nearby Hilton Airport Hotel cocktail lounge. Unfortunately they'e  hit by a bus full of girls from Our Lady of Harriburg that smacks into their car while on their way to a Beatles concert. As fate would have it, the girls escape unharmed while the guys end up dead.

Years later, the Plaids are given a chance to return to Earth to perform the concert that never was. Those inclined to religious doctrine might wonder about such a premise, but it sets the stage for a gleeful evening of comic fun and a highly polished review of pop songs from the 1950s.

Pittsburgh CLO chose "Forever Plaid" to open its new Cabaret Theater 15 years ago and has brought it back for another look with director Guy Stroman (who played in the original New York Company) for another go-round as well. While I never saw the 2004 CLO production or any other one for that matter, despite the fact that the show seems to be done around the country with unusual regularity, I was curious about its popularity, and, after seeing the CLO production, I now understand why it's such an audience favorite

Things get going on a whimsical note when pianist (and associate music director), Catie Brown, walks nonchalantly across the stage as if indifferent to the idea of providing accompaniment to a bunch of guys on reprieve from the afterlife. Don't be fooled by her demeanor. It's all part of a guise she puts on throughout the show that gets only funnier and funnier.

While Brown and bassist, Jeffrey Mangone, Sr. (George Elliot on some evenings) largely maintain a low key presence nestled in a back corner on stage right, the four actors that are front and center are anything but low-profile and unostentatious. They come on with an infectious comedicenergy that plays well against the repertoire of 50s tunes those old enough to remember will relish. 

Most of the guys appear in their 20s, so born decades after the songs they sing were hits. But they sing as if they'd taken master classes with Perry Como or Frank Sinatra and groups like the Four Lads, The 
Four Aces or the Four Freshmen.

Quinn Patrick Shannon as Frankie, Brandon Lambert as Jinx, Wood van Meter as Smudge and Zander Lyons as Sparky create some celestial four-part harmonies but also manage to thrill with solo work. Just after Lambert wowed the crowd with a stellar rendition of "Cry," Van Meter got everyone's attention with his deep-voiced "Sixteen Tons" that segued nicely into a lively version of "Chain Gang." He also got more than a few laughs with his repeated difficulty telling left from right - everything from wearing his plaid sash on the wrong side to leading with the wrong foot when Stroman choreographed some splashy footwork. 

Shannon's "Three Coins in a Fountain" is memorable as is Lyons' comic version of "Lady of Spain."  As an ensemble, the Plaids even get even with the Beatles when they sing a 50s-style rendition of "She Loves You," dressed in an un-Fab Four outfit of white sport coats and plaid cummerbunds.

The funniest segment of the show is a frenzied attempt to compress the Ed Sullivan Show, a popular, hour-long, 50's television program that was a Sunday staple in many American households, into a thirty minute free for all of jugglers, hand puppets, a bosomy opera singer and more - acts that made their way onto the Sullivan stage through the years.

The guys sometimes get interactive with the audience so don't be surprised if someone's wife  gets flirted with or someone else is invited to join them on stage for a chance to play the right hand notes on the piano to "Heart and Soul."

With its 50s theme and song repertoire, don't be fooled into believing that the show is just for those who'd been around in mid 20th Century America. Besides the comedy, which is timelessly apt, the melodies are not only approachable but something even a jaded teen might enjoy. And what better way to give them a taste of a unique historic era than by treating them to a Plaid outing?

Be sure to pay attention at the end, when scenic coordinator and lighting designer Paul Miller join forces to punctuate the evening's panache with a delightful visual. Just keep your eye peeled on the moon, fully aglow center stage.

"Forever Plaid, written and originally directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross, is at the Greer Cabaret Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through December 29. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or CLOCabaret.com.

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