Here’s Part One of a series of interviews with the cast of Olney Theatre Center’s production of Forever Plaid, which opens Friday night on the Historic Stage.
Meet cast members Austin Colby and Brandon Duncan.
Joel: How did you get involved with the Olney production of Forever Plaid?
Austin: Bobby Smith was handed the opportunity to direct another production of Forever Plaid and he asked me to be a part of it.
Brandon: Austin Colby is a great friend of mine, and was already contracted to play Frankie, and he heard that they were still looking for a Smudge, so he put us in touch.
Who do you play in the show and how is your character like you and different from you? Why is playing him so much fun?
Austin: I play Frankie (Francis). Frankie is the leader of the group who suffers from asthma and the stress of making this final performance possible. He is constantly trying to cover for his three friends when they say or do something embarrassing. He roots for them and wants them to overcome their insecurities and for the group to achieve the goal of a successful concert with an audience. Frankie and I share this energy to support our friends and hope for the best. I admire this character and throughout the rehearsal process, I began to find myself trying to keep the group on task and focused. I even used to have asthma as a child. Bobby Smith describes the character perfectly: his job is to keep all the puppies in the box. As an actor, we are trained to be aware of our surroundings and constantly listen. With these three fun, silly, scene partners, I feel like I’m constantly on my toes and in a continuous acting exercise.
Brandon: I play Smudge – a dyslexic worrier with a chronic stomachache and stage-fright. He doesn’t see the point in coming back down to Earth to give a concert. Why dig up the past (pun intended)? He’s pretty much as far removed from me as possible (…except maybe the neuroticism), and that is why he is such a fun role. The best part about these characters is that they are all in this together. They have this incredibly strong brotherhood, and even after death, they would never part. They are “the proud, the pure, the Plaid.” That’s love.
What did you learn about The Plaids that you didn’t know before you became involved in the production?
Austin: I did a lot of research so I was pretty familiar with things once I got into rehearsal.
Brandon: I only had a vague idea of what this show was about, but was pretty familiar with the original cast recording before we started rehearsals. I didn’t realize how deceptively difficult the music is. It’s an entire musical made up of four guys singing brilliant 1950’s-style harmonies. I think the biggest surprise is that this show actually does have a heart to it. People coin it as a “jukebox review,” but it’s not. It’s the story of four best friends who only had each other when they were alive, and still only have each other after death. It’s about second chances, about growing even after death, and about saying goodbye. It’s about friendship.
The music is from the 50s and you weren’t around yet. What did you learn about the music of the 50s and how would you describe the score from the show? Which song that you sing is your favorite, and which song that you don’t sing do you think you would have done a great job singing?
Austin: Growing up riding in the passenger seat of my grandfather’s car listening to old Perry Como hits is one of my fondest memories. When rehearsing, I found learning the music challenging, but enjoyed applying the style I grew up listening to. The score is definitely the most difficult music I have ever encountered and I love every bit of it. James Raitt’s arrangements are brilliant. It’s a privilege to get to sing this music. My favorite song to sing in the show is “Chain Gang.” It’s a small excerpt in the middle of “16 Tons.” Because of my memories in Pop Pop’s car, I’d love to sing “Catch a Falling Star,” the tribute to Perry Como. I will say, David Landstrom showcases the song very well.
Brandon: I grew up listening to music from that generation, so the songs weren’t a big surprise. What was surprising was the difficulty of the arrangements. As an audience member, you (hopefully) won’t be sitting there thinking, “Wow, they are working really hard at those harmonies,” because that would mean that we are doing something wrong. That is not the point of the show. It’s about achieving that easy listening sound through the harmonies. It’s about oneness through the four parts. As Frankie says, “Nothing beats the feeling of being inside a good tight chord.”
I love that I get to sing “16 Tons.” I used to sing that growing up when I had to sing it up an octave or two because I couldn’t hit the low notes. I think it’s great that it is part of Plaid (and that I get to sing it in it’s proper register).
You appeared in Spring Awakening here at Olney and now you get to do a ‘lighter’ musical. What fond memories do you have of appearing in SA?
Austin: It’s great to reunite with two SA castmate, especially being able to work with David Landstrom again. Except in this show, he and I don’t have to lock lips.
Brandon: I was not a part of SA. This is my Olney Theatre debut, and I am very happy to be a part of such a great company!
Are there similar challenges you faced preparing for your roles in both of these shows?
Austin: I think these shows are two totally different ball games. Both are challenging in separate ways.
Why do you think audiences love this show 23 years after it opened?
Austin: The show can easily be described as timeless. It truly captures the style and music of an era that still has effect in today’s music.
Brandon: Well, I would say that people still like this show after all this time, for the same reason people still like Les Mis, or Anything Goes, or all of those older musicals. It’s about connecting with and caring about these characters, and following them on a journey – and of course the entertainment value is there too. The cool thing about this show, is that it will never be outdated. It takes place right here, right now. There isn’t another world you have to put yourself in, because it’s set in the theatre. The characters are performing their concert for you. There is no fourth wall. As Director/Choreographer Bobby Smith says, “The audience is the fifth Plaid.”
How has Director Bobby Smith helped you with your performance?
Austin: Bobby Smith knows this show backwards, forwards, and upside down. He is the primary reason I accepted the role. With his history as an actor, a director, and being so familiar with the show, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. He knows these characters so well. He did a great job of casting actors who had a little bit of the qualities that he could gradually pull out throughout this process.
Brandon: Again, Bobby knows this show. He was in the original Off-Broadway production as well as multiple other productions over the years. He worked with the writer/composer, and has directed it numerous times. He is the key to this show. (And he’s funny as hell, too!) You can tell that he is just so passionate about Plaid. It’s an extension of himself. I imagine that that is how he keeps it fresh directing it time after time. It’s cool to be a part of something like that.
Which dance was the hardest to learn and what is your favorite dance in the show?
Austin: Both would probably be “Crazy About You Baby.” Primarily because of the added aspect that I can’t reveal. You’ll have to come see the show but it’s definitely a show stopping number.
Brandon: The theory behind the choreography is that it is what the Plaids came up with in their basement where they rehearsed, so calling it “dancing” might be stretching it a bit; there are a lot of numbers with crisp choreography though! The hardest, dancing-wise is probably “Shangri-la,” while my favorite would have to be “Crazy ‘Bout you Baby,” where we use absurdly long toilet bowl plungers as microphones.
What has your Olney Theatre experience been like?
Austin: This is my third production with OTC and it’s always nice to return. The staff is very welcoming and they always maintain a high quality of work. It’s a privilege to be asked back.
Brandon: Working at Olney is really great. Everyone who works there is just so passionate about creating good theatre. They seem to remember that while, yes it’s work, they are doing what they love.
What’s next for you on the stage?
Austin: After Forever Plaid, I will be returning to Signature Theatre to appear in the world premiere performance of Crossing, a musical written by Matt Conner and Grace Barnes.
Brandon: In November I am going on tour with A Christmas Carol, which will travel down the eastern half of The States, ending in Florida on Christmas Eve. Not a bad place to be for the holidays!
Why should families bring their kids and grand kids and spouses and relatives to come see you in Forever Plaid?
Austin: Forever Plaid is timeless. Great music, lively dancing, and hilarious jokes for all ages.
Brandon: This show is very charming. It has jokes that everyone will understand, it has some that the kids won’t get, it references things that only people alive in the 50s will get, it has physical humor that will have everyone laughing. It’s entertaining, accessible, and hummable. It’s a small show with a huge heart.
Forever Plaid plays from August 24th to September 15, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.