May 10, 2005 > Forever Plaid
by Tony C. Yang
Regis Philbin has been hawking The Dean Martin Variety Show DVD on television recently, and I kept thinking about it as I watched Broadway West's production of Forever Plaid last Saturday. Like that weekly show, Forever Plaid is a journey into musical nostalgia, with some fresh energy and jokes along the way.
Billed as the story of a singing group's final concert, Forever Plaid is a time warp into the 1950s, when music was electric guitar and synthesizer-free. Director Robert Casillas does his best to convince us that we are indeed witnessing the return of The Plaids, going from the purgatory of unknown singers to a "Heavenly Musical Hit."
Four vocalists of varying sizes and talent comprise The Plaids, each adding his own idiosyncrasies and flaws to the mix, until one-by-one, they figure out they are on stage to make a final appearance and make their musical mark. While the premise is farfetched, the earnestness of the performance is authentic and palpable.
Imagine the quintessential garage band; take away their instruments, cut their hair, put them in dinner jackets and you'll have the Plaids, circa 1964. The quartet of would-be crooners are ably performed by Mark Drumm (Frankie), Joey Montes (Sparky), Danny Broome (Smudge) and John Prigeon (Jinx). Forever Plaid fearlessly leads us into the era of Buddy Holly, penny arcades and the Ed Sullivan Show.
In addition to the Plaids, a trio of musicians on stage left unobtrusively add a great deal of intimacy to the small but cozy Broadway West theatre.
With a candlelit entrance, the Plaids introduce themselves as a young, bumbling and insecure bunch of would-be singers, wearing ugly plaid cummerbunds no one would be caught dead in. Unfortunately, they are dead.
On their way to their first performance, the Plaids all died in a car crash in 1964. Ironically, it was with a bus of Beatles fans, and later in the show, a hilarious send-up of "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Their appearance is apparently their chance to make things right and reach their vocal potential.
"Their journey to this last concert has taken them through singing gigs at supermarket openings and hotel lounges," said Casillas. "To be heard is what brings them joy." The Plaids come across as a dedicated group of proto-professionals, particularly through their practiced nervousness and eerily well-choreographed arrangements. Each character is distinct, with his own inventory of skills, and some double as musicians in a pinch.
Clearly patterned after Buddy Holly, the bespectacled Broome gives a tremendously understated performance (even if he looks like Paul Wolfowitz) as Smudge and is the best dancer of the group. As Sparky, Montes balances his singing with his top-notch dancing skills and animated facial expressions. His ability on the hand-powered keyboard is equally amazing. Prigeon, a credit to central casting, plays the role of Jinx, the nervous big galoot perfectly- although his suit fits him a little less perfectly. Overall, the best performance of the evening is delivered by the energetic Drumm; as Frankie, the asthmatic leader, he does well in encouraging his fellow balladeers as well as engaging the audience.
Improvised instruments are one of the unexpected- but pleasant- surprises of the Plaid's repertoire, and a segment featuring tropical decorations and professional lighting (contrasting well against a rich blue curtain) provided a good segue into intermission.
The Plaid's skits are hit-or-miss, going from handkerchief juggling to an accordion solo, from piano shenanigans to calypso dancing. Puns and double entendres abound in this family-friendly show, however, and sizable number of jokes will fly over the heads of anyone under 40. I had never heard several of the songs performed that night, but the rest of the audience seemed to be mesmerized and even sang along with some of them.
A gem of a skit is unearthed by the Plaids when they pause for a commercial break- soap-opera style- complete with catchy jingles for a now-defunct Lincoln-Mercury automobile from the Detriot era that "rides like a dream." Fans of the original Tonight Show featuring Ed Sullivan take note; a frenetic combination of in jokes and comedic sketches (complete with bongo drums) is worth the price of admission alone. Songs range from the upbeat: "Rags to Riches"; to the sentimental: "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing." Some are even sung in Spanish.
Other than the steady parade of hits by the Plaids, I must single out three musicians also on stage that supported the Plaids in their comeback.
Not once did I hear a key off-tune, a mis-plucked string or an ill-timed beat. Thanks to the skill and talent of these supporting musicians, you can hear the Plaids belt out their tunes quite clearly.
Longtime pianist Bob Sunshine (his real name) "came with the room," and you can certain hear why he's been there so long, despite his insistence on union breaks. Bob Wylie as Uncle Chester does an admirable job keeping the Plaids in step from military drumrolls to Elvis Priestly's Hound Dog. Finally, bassist Melody Cardona has a bright future ahead of her, if her performance in Forever Plaid is any indication of her talent- she's only a sophomore in high school- her deep notes reverberate in full harmony with the Plaids.
Located above Bay Street Coffee Co., Broadway West is hidden in plain sight behind the red brick and the thoroughfare of the Irvington District intersection. Even if a musical revue isn't your thing, there's bound to be something of interest for you- in their ninth season, Broadway West offers The Miracle Worker and Corpse! after Forever Plaid goes back to its jukebox.
Until you get your own copy of the Dean Martin Show, if you miss the days of yore, or even if you just want to take a walk down memory lane, Forever Plaid is the just the time machine for you.
Forever Plaid runs until June 4, with performances Thursday to Sunday at 8 p.m. Thursday shows are discounted 20 percent. Early showtimes for Sun., May 15, 22 and 29 are at 1 p.m. For tickets and more information, please call (510) 683-9218.