'Plaid' celebrates time when guys sang in harmony, not makeup


October 15, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Long, long ago -- in the 1950s, actually -- pop music had a different sound. These were the days when guys wore cardigans and crew cuts and gals wore poodle skirts and bobby socks, and their music reflected the perceived spirit of the times -- that is to say, harmony.

"Forever Plaid," the just-for-fun musical revue that opened the season at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre last night, brings back the four-part harmony popularized by such guy groups as the Four Lads, the Four Freshmen, the Four Aces, well, you get the idea. In this case, the show's author, director and choreographer, Stuart Ross, has concocted a fictitious quartet called the Four Plaids, and he's given them an appropriately hokey reason for performing in front of a 1992 audience.

I say "appropriately" because Jinx (Paul Binotto), Smudge (Gregory Jbara), Francis (Neil Nash) and Sparky (Michael Winther) come across as the type of guys who were so square they probably considered "hokey" a compliment. When they tell us they met in high school A-V club, it's no surprise. Individually, the Plaids are those nice boys every parent adored and every daughter prayed wouldn't ask her for a date. Collectively, however, they croon some smooth period tunes. Their renditions of "No, Not Much" and "Shangri-La," in particular, could give "easy listening" a good name.

The premise for the show is that the Plaids were killed in 1964 when their Mercury convertible was broadsided by a bus filled with Catholic school girls on their way to see the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show"; in case this symbolism isn't blatant enough, the point is that that fateful program marked the end of a musical era. Now, through wish-fulfillment or holes in the ozone layer or perhaps the sheer Power of Harmony, the Plaids are back to perform the one and only professional concert of their career.

At first they feign nervousness, which is understandable; after all, not only is this supposedly the biggest hall they've ever played, but they've been dead for almost three decades. Their synchronized moves are deliberately a bit off and they squint at the lights throughout most of their opening number, "Three Coins in the Fountain."

They hit their endearingly loopy stride when they sing "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby" using plungers for microphones. Though the plungers have a nasty way of sticking to the stage floor, the Plaids insist they're more comfortable using them since that's how they rehearsed in the stockroom of Smudge's family's plumbing supply company.

From there it's only a short putt to accept the seriousness of purpose they bring to "Chain Gang," punctuated by the sound of Smudge "pinging" a spoon against a ketchup bottle, or better still, their unabashedly corny send-up of "The Ed Sullivan Show," which includes, among other things, a dog act with a stuffed dog, a seal act in which Sparky plays the seal, and Smudge swallowing real fire, all during the 3 minutes and 11 seconds it takes Jinx to sing "Lady of Spain."

"Forever Plaid" has become somewhat of a cult phenomenon since its New York debut in 1989. In addition to the national tour that is making its first stop at the Mechanic, seven other companies are currently harmonizing on stages across the country. This flurry of activity may not signal a major musical revival; after all, on one level the show is a kind of Harmonic Revenge of the Nerds. However, nowadays when rockers have names like the Dead Kennedys and Megadeth, it's refreshing to remember a time when pop groups were proud to be called "Lads" and "Freshmen." Doo-wah!

'Forever Plaid'

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Nov. 8.

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.

Tickets: $15-$40.

Call: (410) 625-1400.

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