BWW Review: FOREVER PLAID is Heavenly at Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret
Full disclosure: it's been eight years and I STILL don't quite get Forever Plaid. If you're a theatre critic or writer, you're going to get asked to see this show a lot (and I do mean a LOT- probably four or five times a year I get invited to see Plaid somewhere). At this point, unless I have reason to believe a production is going to be superlative, I skip it, since I've said everything there is to say about Forever Plaid, and my reaction to it, and my confusion over whether audiences are responding sincerely or ironically to this sincere/ironic revue-within-a-musical. Luckily for me, and for Pittsburgh, this is absolutely a superlative Forever Plaid.
As directed and choreographed by Guy Stroman, one of the original Plaids himself, the cast finds comic nuances and moments of real emotion. The jokes land when they're supposed to, and are hacky and awkward when they're meant to be: one thing I do enjoy about Plaid is that it embraces cringe comedy in a way musical theatre so rarely does. And of course, those harmonies. The Four Plaids sing with such pristine harmonic blend that if I didn't know two of them from doing shows with them in the past, I could have mistaken them for a real full-time vocal group.
Although there is no star per se, Quinn Patrick Shannon, as Frankie, leaves the strongest impression as the group's beating heart. His delivery of the "perfect moment" monologue at the end- which I hold to be one of the five truly great monologues in musical theatre- stops the show in its tracks and turns it, briefly, from a spoof into a deeply heartfelt piece of nostalgia. Zander Lyons and Brandon Lambert, as the two boyish tenors Sparky and Jinx, sometimes blend together a bit, but that's how their written: like their voices in the complex four-part writing, the two all but intertwine, and they make up the backbone of the piece. Finally, Wood Van Meter's bespectacled, buttoned-up Smudge is very funny as he moves with great restraint through the set until finally loosening up. It helps that Van Meter is as tall as his voice is deep: there's a sense of "gentle giant" that makes his constant delicacy around the other, significantly shorter, Plaids a practical issue as much as one of personality.
I hardly need to mention that the crowd was eating the whole thing up. Forever Plaid is a perennial, and it's been around to the point that when it premiered, people were nostalgic for vocal quartets, but now I've met people younger than me who are nostalgic for Forever Plaid itself. In 2019, we've basically understood the concept of "stylistic whiteness" as a well-intentioned but thoroughly anodyne, mayonnaise-like attempt at passionate art. It's Perry Como without Burt Bacharach. It's the Four Freshman and the Mitch Miller Sing-Along Gang. It's the Emcee himself covering Eric Clapton on "The Magic of Joel Grey" (and I was a classic rock head for years before I became a theatre geek as well, so Google that album, kids). And it's the Plaids. According to the show's lore, they died in a hilariously tragic car accident just moments before Beatlemania broke out and ended their staid and polished genre once and for all, but this doesn't stop the resurrected vocal group from taking stabs at the Beatles, calypso, world music and so on. And they sound sweet, and polished, and harmonically pristine. But they sound WHITE.
The joke is on them... right? Not according to the nearly-sold-out audience at the Saturday matinee I attended, who laughed at the slapstick and the double entendres, but seemed not to grasp the ironic camp element of the show. "It brought back so many memories," said one woman at a table of ecstatic Plaid-heads I overheard as I left. "I missed that sound," said her companion. Maybe I'm overthinking the whole thing. Maybe the Four Plaids resonate because of their (somewhat misguided) passion, as aspirational dreamers and not as Saturday Night Live nerds. Could the joke be on me instead? It hardly matters, when the show is this strong. Forever Plaid defies nostalgia, thumbs its nose at irony. It dares to sing pretty and be sentimental even when society looks for the wink and waits for the whoopee cushion.