Musical revues are sort of like the grab bag of theater — there’s a potpourri of elements and songs from other sources, tied up and assembled in a new context, with (when done well) a new plot that brings some surprise to the familiar. The original “Forever Plaid,” conceived by Stuart Ross, is a sterling example of the right way to do just that — it takes 16 well-known standards and folds them into a story of a four-man, close-harmony “guy group” that never quite made it. The group’s tour van gets blindsided by a bus, ending both their lives and dreams of hitting the big time. But in “Forever Plaid,” the characters get one more chance to make things right and sing their hearts out. It’ s a tried-and-true musical theater story about second chances that, since its Off-Broadway debut, has become a beloved staple of the community theater repertoire, including its fondly-remembered run at Off-Broadstreet Theater 12 years ago.
So beloved is “Forever Plaid,” in fact, that its creators have brought the boys back from heaven one more time, in “Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings,” playing through Sunday, December 21, at Off-Broadstreet. This holiday-themed revue owes more to Bing Crosby, Perry Cuomo, and Ed Sullivan than the Four Aces — it’s a delightful send-up in the spirit of mid-20th century Christmas specials. (I thought I was the only one who really missed those — this show proved me wrong). Off-Broadstreet’s certainly captures the zany holiday spirit admirably.
The first half of the evening is dedicated to reintroducing us to Smudge (Tom Orr), Frankie (Jim Petro), Sparky (Christopher Tolemeo), and Jinx (Timothy Walton). Through holiday-tinted versions of classic doo-wop songs, we get the gist of each of the Plaids — Smudge is the bumbling, choreography-challenged elder statesman; Sparky is the wise guy; Frankie is the earnest one; and Jinx is the appropriately named, wobbly confidence seeker. While some of the songs try a little too hard to inject some holiday cheer into the originals, the boys are at their best when they gleefully acknowledge the absurdity of the holiday/doo-wop mashup. When the first act ends in an enjoyably ridiculous portmanteau of “Christmas Calypso,” the boys are completely in on the joke, and their self-awareness at the bizarre energy of the moment brings the audience along for the ride.
While the first act is enjoyable enough, it’s a little slow to get rolling — after all, there’s a lot of ground to cover, between rediscovering the characters, summarizing their first adventure back from the great unknown, and discovering the true nature of this second return. The action picks up when Rosemary Clooney extends a helping hand from beyond in an adorable sequence that repurposes “Mambo Italiano,” “Hey There,” and “Fever” as a series of clues pointing towards the ultimate Shangri-la of any music group — the Plaids are back to film their very own TV holiday special.
The much better and consistently fun second act tackles this premise and runs with it. We’re privy to a joy-filled, manic romp through the conventions, both hallowed and hokey, of the magical holiday special. While there’s an ill-advised, boy-band number at the top of the act, the remainder allows the comedy and personality of the performers to really shine. Of particular note is the Plaid’s devotional hero-worship of Perry Como; equal parts uncomfortable obsession and heartfelt idolism, they treat a treasured sweater of Perry’s with the same reverence as the Shroud of Turin. When the quartet becomes a quintet in act two as Perry joins them for a special number, the affection of the moment is wholly earned. And the opening night’s audience howled with laughter at the Plaids’ three-minute version of the Ed Sullivan specials, complete with Rockettes, trained seals, juggling, and small animals jumping through hoops,
The individual performances offer a nice variety of personalities and energy, with nice voices (particularly in the case of Petro and Walton) throughout. Tolemeo’s honest and consistent wonder and warmth are a stand-out, and Orr’s effortless Ed Sullivan impression is spot-on. Robert Thick’s direction, combined with the efforts of his cast, present an evening that conveys the goofy fun and good cheer of the season. What’s missing in polish is more than made up for in charm.
For new readers, it’s worth noting that the Off-Broadstreet Theater is a rarity in this day and age — an independent, community-driven theater in consistent operation for 25 years this January. I’m also impressed with Off-Broadstreet’s commitment to customer service and engagement at all levels — the staff is consistently warm and inviting, and the tabled seating (ticket price includes dessert and coffee/tea) is relaxed and comfortable. Part of Off-Broadstreet’s success is that theatergoers leave feeling looked after and taken care of, and it’s an absolute joy to find such an establishment still in operation.
“Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Sunday, December 21, and gala performance on New Year’s Eve. Musical. $27.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.