In a week when the world’s buzzing about whether *N SYNC will stage a reunion at the VMAs and news of One Direction’s feature film has fans swooning, the stage is set for the ultimate boy band comeback: that is, one that’s coming back from the dead.
Forever Plaid is a campy jukebox musical from the ’90s celebrating the ’50s and ’60s, written, directed, and choreographed by Stuart Ross. The Olney Theatre Institute has lovingly, masterfully resurrected this thin tale of a tight-harmony guy group — a la The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen — who meet their demise by literally colliding with the Fab Four’s invasion and a fast-changing musical scene. As with so many artists, death proves their big break. Frankie, Jinx, Sparky, and Smudge return from that sound stage in the sky in their wedding-cake dinner jackets, cummberbunds and humma-humma tones to serenade us for one-moonlit-night-only.
Watch out: These boys — with their asthma, nosebleeds, ulcers and other adolescent trauma — are ready to go viral.
Bobby Smith re-creates Ross’ original staging but has infused so much freshness you’ll want to revisit it over and over, like crimson and clover, wearing down the grooves in your favorite vinyl 45s. Each dorky penguin-esque pose, every extended line of choreography is like a picture for an album cover or bedroom poster. Smith wrings out each ounce of shtick from every gooey stanza, and it never gets old. It’s as if two shows had to be mounted: first, they laid down the seamless tracks, then added the lounge-lizard, tongue-in-cheek high jinks. It’s amazing they pull it all off without dubbing.
And the sound is impeccable. Sound Designer Max Krembs rivals an elite record producer, frosting this foursome with just the right amount of reverb and crispness while blending their platinum voices like an Osterizer. Music Director Joel DeCandio, who also anchors the two-piece pit on piano with class, deserves bows-times-infinity for coaxing these crooners to such climactic heights. And Lighting Designer Gary Slootskiy bathes our prom kings in pure dreaminess.
Although most boy bands are scientifically engineered, the talent here is man-size and organic. Austin Colby (Frankie) is the hunk with the gorgeous eyes and gleaming smile whose first solo in “Three Coins in the Fountain” melts and douses us in wistfulness. (I wish … I were young enough?) Chris Rudy (Jinx) is the l-l-l-lovesick, shy, sweet one whose dulcet pipes open funky floodgates in “Cry.” Vocally mature David Landstrom (Sparky) adds ham and pizzazz to “Perfidia” and often turns what might be groaner lines into poetry slam-dunks.
But by far the most gifted actor is Brandon “Got milk of magnesia?” Duncan (Smudge), whose comic prowess cuts to the quick of each articulated funny bone. The group practices in the basement of Smudge’s father’s plumbing supply company, and Duncan sure puts the bass in basement. He shines soulfully on “Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang,” while ‘plunging’ in on all manner of percussive instruments, and his concentration on the spoons is superhuman. The supernerd in this nerd pin-up lineup, Duncan’s body contorts like a cartoon. Like all great comic actors, though, his style is layered with gravitas and restraint. His monologue about the security-blanket comforts of his record recollection, an ode to vinyl, stings — most of today’s youth will never know the ecstasy of fingering an album sleeve or popping out a plastic spindle. He glides from foot-in-mouth double entendre to fire-eating, and his impression of Ed Sullivan is dead-on.
Costumes by Jeanne Bland are anything but bland. The “Caribbean Plaid” adornments ignite a giggle fest. And her plaid pattern proves as tasteful and harmonious as the family values woven into this show. Though some might misjudge the Forever Plaid book as fluff, The Plaids’ hysterical ode to their nemeses Beatles (“She loves you, yessirree-Bob”) and mash-up of The Ed Sullivan Show (a glimpse of every garden-variety act that graced his set in about 60 seconds) are sheer brilliance. No, sheer MADNESS.
Can I give it 10 stars? — because this production is off the charts with star power, on and off the stage. Yet, for all its irreverence, it’s a heart-and-soul tribute to every celebrity flame that was ever snuffed out too soon — from Buddy Holly’s day the music died to Glee’s sorrowful Cory Monteith, from Amy Winehouse to Whitney Houston.
Olney’s emotional fusion of nostalgia, gags and grins is to-die-for entertainment. Grab your plaid and wear it proud because, sadly, like youth, Forever Plaid won’t last forever.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Forever Plaid plays through September 15, 2013, on the Historic Stage at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
‘Meet The Plaids’ at Olney Theatre Center Part 1: Austin Colby and Brandon Duncan.
‘Meet The Plaids’ at Olney Theatre Center Part 2: Chris Rudy.