The voice of Ben Mayne, the physical comedy and singing of Sean Bell, and the spirit and harmony of Mitch McCarrell and Nick Cearley propel “Plaid Tidings,” a Christmas offshoot of the ever-popular “Forever Plaid,” to giddy, fulfilling heights at the Bucks County Playhouse. That’s where director Gordon Greenberg’s sense of fun overcomes Stuart Ross’s overwriting to provide a holiday musical that is merry and bright.
Greenberg doesn’t use what I’d exactly call taste to get around Ross’s excessive use of shtick and exposition that cheapens the book of “Plaid Tidings” and threatens to rob the show of the wit and entertainment value it otherwise displays. Instead he has his talented cast play Ross’s idiocy cleanly and without emphasis, so it glides by somewhat tolerably and gives Bell and Cearley in particular extra moments in which they can shine as comedians as well as singers. He also makes “Plaid Tidings” pay big dividends when the ensemble is allowed, as a group or individually, to just take over the Bucks County stage and sing.
In keeping with the “Plaid” format Ross got so right in his original revue, “Forever Plaid,” a lot of antics arise while the quartet is performing, but Greenberg and the gifted choreographer, Lorin Latarro, are shrewd and creative at seeing that these bits fit the songs and the characters and remain amusing within the context of a number. Wonderful arrangements by James Raitt and others and blissfully crisp singing by the “Plaid Tidings” cast save many a day-o (inside joke based on Ross’s constant of “The Banana Song”) and render Greenberg’s production an overall delight.
“Forever Plaid” has turned into a “Plaid” franchise. When Ross presented the original show in 1990, the close harmonies and judicious choice of 1950s tunes, from both a comic and sentimental standpoint, made the show immediately likeable, which is why it continues to be produced so rampantly today. Ross included large doses of shtick in his original, but they often showed the nature of the characters and were less an intrusion than they are in “Plaid Tidings.”
The “Plaid” saga features four teens who work up a terrific act and are driving to a mid-Pennsylvania outpost to perform it when their car is hit by a school bus full of girls from a Catholic school, killing the four teens instantly. The “Plaid” shows are the boys being given a chance to return to Earth for a brief time to present their show to a live audience and satisfy the destiny precluded by their abrupt end.
“Plaid Tidings” is a mixture of specialty numbers and standard Christmas music that approximates what the Plaids would have done in a holiday concert. As with “Forever Plaid,” the musical choices are astute.
Presentation is another matter. Ross writes by a formula that includes gimmickry. As frequently happens, his ideas for comedy have become self-consciously outlandish and designed to knock socks off instead of blending organically with the general show.
“Plaid Tidings” — successful in Bucks County because Greenberg and Latarro don’t fall into gaping traps — would be more pleasing and much better off if Mayne, Bell, McCarrell, and Cearley were just left to sing.
Some comedy is warranted. You want to expose the guys’ innocence as young adults and entertainers. You want some character traits that work better if they’re funny. But music is what drives the “Plaid” shows. It is Bell’s versatile bass baritone, Mayne’s gorgeous and expressive second tenor, Cearley’s ability to color a song, and McCarrell’s sensational high register that make “Plaid Tidings” soar. Ross would do well to add more songs and make singing the priority and leave comic byplay to deft stagers like Greenberg and Latarro to imagine and execute. The Christmas medley is interrupted too often by nonsense that doesn’t enhance anything, and though Bell and Cearley are at home with their comic duties, I’d prefer to hear them sing than to see them clown.
Each of the actors plays a significant part in Greenberg’s production. Mayne often galvanizes it with his touching renditions of songs and pure voice. Bell has an impressive range that can handle a high note while going to the basement for deep harmony. He is also entertaining when asked to take the stage solo or do physical bits. McCarrell knows how to minimize clowning while maximizing singing. Cearley offers a complete package, singing with brio, dancing with both style and rubber legs, and doing comedy with nonchalance.
Lorin Latarro is as much as the star of “Plaid Tidings” as the cast. Her choreography adds the wit Ross’s book subtracts. She is deft at setting light touches that get a laugh or illustrate a character trait, and she can fill the stage with energy when a number calls for reckless abandon.
Plaid Tidings, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and matinees Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 3 p.m. $25 to $59.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.