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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Forever Plaid
South Bay Musical Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of U.S. Drag


David Murphy, Matthew Hall, Derek DeMarco, and Will Perez
Photo by Scott McClelland
Emerging through rolling fog out of a giant, neon-lit Wurlitzer jukebox and draped above by a curtain of hundreds of 45s, four men in white tux coats chant solemnly something sounding Latin and holy and strangely peppered with the word "plaid." Through some miracle of star alignment and cosmic combustion, standing on stage are four once-dead but now looking quite-alive members of a semi-professional quartet called Forever Plaid that once starred in the likes of prom dances, bowling alley parties, and hardware store openings. Dressed as they were in their car on February 9, 1964 before being "slammed by a group of parochial virgins" (i.e., hit broadside by a bus of teens going to see the Beatles on the "The Ed Sullivan Show"), the chums since high school saw their journey to their first big gig tragically end as they rehearsed en route, "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing."

That un-played concert has evidently plagued their wandering souls for over fifty years. It seems the only way for them to finally rest peacefully in the great beyond is now to perform the planned set of music, although they admit being rusty in voice, lyrics, and choreography. As they move into a closely harmonized, "heavenly-sounding" "Three Coins in a Fountain," we and they know that South Bay Musical Theatre has scored a hit in producing Stuart Ross's Forever Plaid, a 1990 Off-Broadway hit that has since seen this final concert re-played thousands of times on stages large and small across the globe.

Forever Plaid is a celebration of the boy bands that emerged in the 1950s with luscious four-part harmonies born in the 1940s crooning tones of Sinatra and Como. On the evening's bill are songs made famous by The Four Aces, The Four Lads, and The Crew Cuts along with four-part blends of solos by Ella, Perry, and Frank, as well as Desi Arnaz, Hoagie Carmichael, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. For an audience of now-graying temples, the show is close to a spiritual experience when performed with the overall perfection of the quartet on South Bay's stage.

The Plaid concert we enjoy is a mixture of fairly corny but overall enjoyable humor intermingled with the twenty-plus songs that vary from slow love numbers to perky and funny ditties and medleys. The four guys before us are still getting over a kind of cosmic jet lag as they initially jump in too soon, face the wrong direction, or forget which song is up next. They surprisingly still suffer from bloody noses, asthma attacks, and indigestion and must resort to rolled tissue hanging out of a nostril, frequent spray down the throat, or a gulp of Milk of Magnesia. But as soon as quick corrections and remedies are humorously applied, their four voices slide into an achingly beautiful "Moments to Remember" (The Four Lads), spark into an early rock-and-roll-sounding and electric "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby" (The Crew Cuts), and knock out of the park "No, Not Much" (also Four Lads) through simultaneous and impressive control of vocal dynamics.

While accompanied by an accordion and one member's solo of Eddie Fisher's "Lady of Spain," their comedy particularly sparkles in a three-minute fast-play of "The Ed Sullivan Show" complete with split-second sequenced parodies of spinning plates, animal acts, a Brunnhilde aria, jugglers and tumblers, and of course, appearances by José Jiménez and Topo Gigio. There's another fun medley in which they illustrate, in quick song-and-dance succession, the kinds of private functions they entertained at, from Italian weddings to Baptist revivals to Jewish bar mitzvahs, ending with a prom dance version of their homage to the emerging Beatles: "She Loves You, Yes-siree, Bob!"

Will Perez is Sparky and often the spokesperson of the group to the audience. Sparky is a big-voiced baritone who has to write a few lyrics on his hand to get through a song or two but whose joy of the music permeates his whole being and is clearly contagious by the audience's reception of him. Also emceeing from time to time is Frankie, played by Derek DeMarco, shining forth with a clear, lead voice in the harmonies and stepping forward to solo in a fine manner on "Matilda" and "Heart and Soul."

The deep bass voice so important to any male quartet is filled admirably by the tall, slender Smudge (David Murphy). When in the foursome, his lower tones often resonate like an underneath organ, providing the solid and pleasing foundation for all the mix of voices above him. Smudge steps forward at one point to share the contents of a piece of luggage he sneaked into the afterlife, pulling out his parents' 45s and a few covers of the albums the Plaids had hoped one day to produce (like a holiday "Plaid Tidings"). Smudge duets with Frankie for a toe-tapping, finger-snapping "Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang" mix, but when he solos on "Shangri-La/Rags to Riches," he unfortunately rises above his normal voice range to over-sing and go a bit flat—one of the night's few misses.

And then there is Jinx, the tenor-voiced Matthew Hall. When Jinx time and again steps forward to sing alone, his high notes flow in exceptionally rich, meltingly gorgeous tones whose clarity never wavers. At the mike to sing The Four Lads hit "Cry," the initially nervous and young Jinx tightly grasps the mike while his sad eyes and raised, dark eyebrows accentuate perfectly the beautiful notes softly emerging. With a sudden jerk of the mike off its stand, he then belts, almost on bended knee, the passion of the song's climax, never losing the quality of delivery.

Throughout the night, the quartet is in constant, coordinated hand, foot, and body movements, all thanks to Marc Gonzalez's understated but overall effective choreography. Sylvia Chow keeps adding more splashes of plaid to the guys' costumes and provides a first-class look at this resurrected, small-fry band. Super kudos goes to set designer Brett Carlson for the center-stage, gigantic jukebox in bright neon colors of the '50s/'60s that opens its hidden doors for heavenly comings and goings. Bob Sunshine (also musical director) and James King reign superb on the grand piano and upright bass, respectively.

As director, Mark Drumm assures that this Forever Plaid never falters in flow or fun and that the audiences of this production will walk out humming and smiling.

Forever Plaid continues in production by South Bay Musical Theatre through February 21, 2016, at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA. Tickets are available online at www.southbaymt.com or by calling 24 hours a day 408-266-4734).


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