Strong cast weaves fine 'Plaid'

Musical salute to '50s and '60s continues at Annapolis theater

July 16, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

Forever Plaid, the latest musical from Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, is not a tribute to Scotland but a salute to 1950s pop music. While some in the audience will recall family Sundays with The Ed Sullivan Show, others will rediscover the pre-Beatles age when gentle guy groups like the Four Aces and Four Freshmen climbed to the top of the charts.

Debuting in 1990 off-Broadway, Stuart Ross' Forever Plaid weaves '50s and '60s pop music into a story of four high school friends who sang at local celebratory events and dreamed of making it big. On their way to their first big gig on Feb. 9, 1964, their car was broadsided by a bus filled with Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles' debut on the Sullivan show. Symbolically, the Plaids died on the night that their music was replaced by the Beatles' new British sound.

Director Jerry Vess brings us four attractive actors creating sweet, unspoiled guys: the Plaids returning from the hereafter for one final concert. Music director Barbara Markey coaxes purity and fervor in their impressive harmonies. And choreographer Amber Perkins creates the right moves.

The quartet seems confused as they greet us with "Holy cannoli!" "We're back on earth!" "We could make the biggest comeback since Lazarus!" And soon these singers - who are all a bit awkward and suffer from stage fright - win us over. Frankie hyperventilates, Sparky has a stress-induced speech impediment, Jinx suffers from nosebleeds and Smudge is afflicted with anxiety-triggered indigestion.

As the group's leader, Frankie, Peter N. Crews is a strong actor with comic talent, abundant charm, nifty dance moves and terrific pipes as revealed in "Chain Gang" and "Matilda," in which he distributes props such as lighted palm trees and leads an audience sing-along without missing a beat.

Recent Severna Park High School graduate Kyle VanZandt seems to be carving out his own niche at age 18 by playing young guys returning from the dead. In April, VanZandt was back from the dead as prom date Jonny in Zombie Prom and barely three months later he's bouncing back from the hereafter as shy tenor Jinx. VanZandt's big number "Cry," where he gives his all, is a peak of the evening; another is in his performance of "Lady of Spain," complete with accordion and surrounded by a frantic three-minute tribute to The Ed Sullivan Show featuring jugglers, fire-eaters, finger puppets and Topo Gigio.

After an accident forced the actor originally cast as Sparky to bow out of ASGT's production, Trent Goldsmith stepped in only two weeks before the delayed opening to complete the harmonious whole and deliver a stellar performance. He gives a comic rendition of "Perfidia" delivered in fractured Spanish and lends his mellow baritone to a Perry Como tribute of "Sing to Me, Mr. C" and "Catch a Falling Star."

Seen in ASGT's On the Town as Gabey, Nathan Bowen returns here as Smudge to supply burnished bass notes in the working man's lament, "Sixteen Tons," along with a catchy "Rags to Riches" and smoothly crooning "Dream Along with Me."

Throughout the evening, the singers get fine support from the on-stage musician-accompanists - Ken Kimble on piano and Larry Berry on drums.

Together they evoke memories of family celebratory occasions with "Anniversary Song" and "Hava Nagila" and remind us of all-but forgotten tunes like "Hot Diggity" and "Magic Moments" that maybe might better remain forgotten.

Somewhere between "Catch a Falling Star" and "Gotta Be This or That," I briefly wondered how this recycled fare could sustain an evening's entertainment. But the music began to sound better, and the group's gentle humor and gradual evolution from awkward to confident provided the needed continuity thread.

Then there are such pleasant interludes as in "Heart and Soul," when an audience member is invited on-stage to play the treble notes of this Hoagy Carmichael-Frank Loesser tune. When the Plaids deliver the most modern tune of the evening in the Beatles' "She Loves You," the "yeah, yeah, yeah" becomes "yes-sir-ree," to the audience's amusement.

The harmonizing brought back the full hokey glory of "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" and later made "Moments to Remember" live up to its title. With "Shangri-La," they reached another romantic pinnacle. I've seldom witnessed at ASGT the kind of standing ovation the Plaids received at the end of their performance, perhaps indicating an appreciation of a musical era when popular tastes were less splintered.

This season, Summer Garden covers three decades, starting with the 1940s in its June opener of On the Town to the current Forever Plaid and through the 1960s with All Shook Up, a tribute to Elvis Presley, arriving in August.

"We wanted to do something different from the usual fare this season in shows we haven't done before that we hope will appeal to the whole family," president Carolyn Kirby said.

Before the show started, she announced that Annapolis Summer Garden is progressing with its restoration, renovation and rejuvenation project. Phase 1 is the restoration of the building's exterior at a cost of $200,000. Additional renovations will provide better lobby traffic flow, an improved box office system, expanded restrooms and an environment conducive to better productions including a lowered stage and a sloped house floor with more comfortable seating. For details, visit www.summer garden.com.

Forever Plaid continues at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, along with July 23, through July 26. For reservations, call 410-268-9212.

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