Â"PLAID TIDINGSÂ" in Munster: Holiday Nostalgia for All Things Plaid
The musical "Forever Plaid," created in 1990 by writer/director Stuart Ross and the late musical director/arranger James Raitt (cousin to John and Bonnie), was and is a perennially popular staple of regional theaters looking for a small-cast, upbeat and moving musical to satisfy audiences of a certain age (meaning my parents, and your grandparents). That show remains Chicago's longest-running musical, racking up six and a half years at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre in the 1990s, in a production (replicating the off-Broadway original) that won four Jeff Awards and employed a whole generation of male musical theater singers here--singers who are slightly nerdy, somewhat funny and "move well." I am among them, as I was a stand-by, off and on, for over two years there. I even understudied Stephen Wallem, now "Thor" on the TV series "Nurse Jackie."
So, as familiar as I am with "Forever Plaid," I had never seen "Plaid Tidings" before Sunday night, at the press opening night for the show at the Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana (about 40 minutes from the Loop). I was eager to see it. But perhaps I know too much. Or am I too young? I don't know. This review has been very hard to write! Let me explain.
"Forever Plaid" is a strange theatrical animal. It's a hybrid between a songbook revue and a book musical, in that it features four characters who are performing a concert for us, the audience. Some would call that a framing device, others a premise, some a conceit, and others just don't give it a second thought. However, it does this sort of thing better than the shows which imitate it ("The Marvelous Wonderettes" comes to mind), in that the audience learns about, and learns to care about, the four guys in this semi-professional singing group who are now dead and come back to life in order to present the concert they never got the chance to perform back in 1964. (Got that?) Jinx, Frankie, Sparky and Smudge relate, mature and conquer, all the while performing some killer charts of the kind of American popular songs that were popular between World War II and the Vietnam War. It's Eisenhower and Kennedy--without Nixon.
About a decade ago, Stuart Ross created "Plaid Tidings" for the Pasadena Playhouse (he's an LA resident), and it's been making the rounds of theaters this time of year ever since. But what is it? It does feature some of the holiday songs that James Raitt arranged for the original production to perform as an encore during holiday time (most notably, a beautiful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and it reminds the audience of what happened during the first show, in case you never saw it, or you forgot. So far, so good. But it also includes a lot of the exact same lines of dialogue, without admitting to same, includes the same gaps in logic (is their name "Forever Plaid" or "The Plaids"?) and takes the audience and the characters on exactly the same emotional and dramatic arc. And it's longer than the first show was, so long that it requires an intermission. To me, this show as written feels cheaply derived, and unnecessarily sloppy. Think of some new jokes, please!
That said, the single best moment in the original show is repeated here, and is just as hilarious as it always will be (the silent bit during "Matilda"). And there are a few moments of new brilliance. The hip-hop "'Twuz the Nite B4 Xmas" is quite clever, and performed remarkably well by Munster's Frankie, Rod Thomas. This production's Jinx, Frank J. Paul, sounds fantastic and also shows mastery of physical comedy during "Besame Mucho/Kiss of Fire." And the glasses-wearing Smudge here, Scott Stratten, is a pretty good tap dancer ("Let It Snow"), in a turn that I think is not usually how this number is done. Munster's Sparky, Jonathan Wagner, is pretty funny, but seems to be doing a different show than the other three guys (my grandmother would say of him, "He's wacky!). Also, he looks and acts disconcertingly like Conan O'Brien's sidekick, Andy Richter. Go figure!