Fake baby-boomer nostalgia became a staple of musical revues in the 1990s, but it’s always good to bear in mind that even the most cliche-ridden sub-genres produce gems that rise above the clutter.
I can’t say whether “Forever Plaid” was the first off-Broadway revue to tap into the sense of lost innocence represented by close-harmony guy groups in matching outfits and an aura of squeaky-clean naivete. But it was certainly the most successful. And for my money, it’s still the best.
The show was written by Stuart Ross — who also directed and choreographed the original production — and is just quirky and charming enough win over-jaundiced critics and other skeptical theatergoers. The new production at the New Theatre is visually slick and impeccably performed by a superior cast of out-of-town actors.
“Forever Plaid” was the first show presented by the New Theatre when it opened in 1992. Now this new production directed by co-founder Dennis D. Hennessy introduces audiences to the theater’s sleek new look, a blend of art deco and futuristic elements that represents a top-to-bottom redesign of the theater, lobby, restrooms and serving areas.
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The show’s title refers to a guy-group that was on the brink of breakout success when, on its way to a gig, the four pals’ 1954 cherry-red Mercury was broadsided by a school bus full of Catholic school girls on their way to New York to see the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The girls survived but the Plaids entered a sort of limbo.
Ross begins the show with the Plaids re-emerging from the afterlife to do one last concert — the one they should have performed had they not met such an untimely demise.
The implication of Ross’s script is that Smudge (Sean Bell), Sparky (Jose Luaces), Frankie (Ben Mayne) and Jinx (Jason Moody) were pretty inexperienced in worldly affairs, despite the prevelance of lush romantic ballads in their repertoire. The characters, as a result, come across as true innocents. And that gives the show some real poignancy and a surprising degree of dramatic punch.
The set list includes such classics as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Chain Gang” and “Heart and Soul,” all done up in tasty, inventive arrangements. The excellent vocalists are supported by a tight band led by musical director Mark Ferrell. Some unfussy but slyly effective choreography is supplied by Richard Hinds.
But the design team — Randy B. Winder (lights), Paul Joseph Barnett (sets) and Mary Trayor (costumes) — elevates the show aesthetically, transforming it into a visually vivid experience. Some of the imagery will linger in your memory long after the house lights come up.