'Forever Plaid' now running at Act 2 Playhouse

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 5/31/24

For those old enough to remember American pop culture of the 1950s, the show is a madeleine that evokes strong memories of a vanished world. In any event, it is fun.

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'Forever Plaid' now running at Act 2 Playhouse


"Forever Plaid" (1989), now running at Act 2 Playhouse, is a show anyone can enjoy. For those old enough to remember American pop culture of the 1950s, the show is a madeleine that evokes strong memories of a vanished world. In any event, it is fun.

The phenomenal commercial success of "Mamma Mia!" (1999), based on ABBA songs, catapulted the "jukebox musical" into the Broadway mainstream. A story is developed around preexisting popular songs, as opposed to a narrative score specifically created to advance a script. (Move over, Stephen Sondheim.)

"Forever Plaid" is an early example. Michael Indeglio has performed in "Forever Plaid" all over the country. Here, he directs as well as performs, staying true to the original work, written and choreographed by Stuart Ross with musical arrangements by James Raitt.

The plot is bare bones. In 1964, The Plaids were a struggling band in the spirit of The Ames Brothers. While driving to pick up their plaid tuxedos, they were killed by a bus carrying a gaggle of Catholic school girls en route to attending the American debut of The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Via an astral glitch, The Plaids find themselves brought back to life to perform one final concert. In the opening segments of this 90-minute show played through without intermission, The Plaids sing vintage 1950s pop hits: "Three Coins in a Fountain," "Moments to Remember," and "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby," just to name a few.

As in all jukebox musicals, the show counts on the audience's love of popular music. Before it's over, The Plaids belt out over 20 tunes, not including a few pastiche song bit arrangements. The production challenge lies in creating enough dramatic tension to make the show more than a simple songfest.

Many such shows center on a performer's triumphs and turmoil — Buddy Holly, Carole King, The Temptations. Without a dramatic bio story to do the heavy lifting, jukebox fare struggles to command your attention. Director Indeglio and his crew come up with enough surprises to keep you in dramatic suspense.

Through group cutups, elliptical stories, and slapstick humor, individual members squeeze in information about themselves so that we glimpse their nature. Smudge feels out of place in his resurrected body and seeks escape. Jinx is brave to even perform because he risks a chronic nosebleed whenever his tenor voice reaches for a high C.

While all four Plaids have the pipes to sing solo, they never do, always performing with other Plaids doing background harmony. Frankie steps in as a leader. He urges his pals to surmount their grief to perform their final gig that culminates in "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing."

The cast emulates the pitch-perfect harmonies of The Four Aces. As music swallowed up by doo-wop and rock, the show insinuates a larger lament over the loss of social cohesion. As Frankie says, "Nothing compares to being inside a good tight chord."

The Plaids cheer up to showcase the full entertainment venue of the late '50s. Each Plaid has a special moment. Sparky (Michael Indeglio) explains how he tricked Perry Como into hearing him perform the hit tune "Catch a Falling Star." It wins Como's praise and signature cardigan sweater.

The group's bass member, Smudge (Thomas Smith), sings the sonorous "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford. In sympathy with pro-labor angst, Frankie (Liam Snead) and the group chime in with "Chain Gang" ("That's the sound of the men, working on the chain, chain gang").

Jinx (Matthew Wright-Conti) belts out "Cry," the hit song by Johnnie Ray, who caused a sensation in his day. Jinx and Frankie then capture the late '50s Harry Belafonte calypso craze with their renditions of "Day-O," "Kingston Market," and "Matilda" ("She take me money and run Venezuela").

Lacking story, "Forever Plaid" instills surprises. Costumes by Seana Benz are playful and eye-catching. Music director and pianist Dan Matarazzo creates turmoil when he goes on a "union break." The Plaids cruise the aisles to prompt a sing-along. Sparky commandeers an audience member to help out with "Heart and Soul."

In one late segment, the Plaids capture an entire "Ed Sullivan Show" in a hectic three minutes. Along with songs, a whirlwind of acts crisscrosses the stage — acrobats, jugglers, Shari Lewis hand puppets. One Plaid swallows a burning sword. How did he do that? (Dan Dardeen, fire instructor).

"The Ed Sullivan Show" was a throwback to revue entertainments that were the basis for early American musicals until the Oscar Hammerstein revolt. Sparked by "Show Boat" (1927) and "Oklahoma!" (1943), the narrative musical ruled Broadway from 1940 to 1990. Songs took shape when the moment was too flush for words.

Ironically, with the jukebox musical, the values of old vaudeville revue are sneakily back in force.

Act 2 Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, Pennsylvania. "Forever Plaid" will run through June 16. Tickets are available at 215-654-0200.