Virginia Rep taps into 50s nostalgia
If the daily news or the daily grind gets you down, head to Virginia Repertory Theater and enjoy their production of Forever Plaid, a musical revue by Stuart Ross.
You’re in for lots of laughs sandwiched among a tight harmony-line’s rendition of songs popular in the 1950s and 60s, ranging from “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Lady of Spain” to “Chain Gang” and “Sixteen Tons.” By the end of the show, the audience is all smiles.
First performed off Broadway in New York in the late 80s, Forever Plaid’s bare-bones plot provides a vehicle for a balanced selection of classic and comedic songs, providing 90 minutes of good, upbeat fun.
Soon after the production at Hanover Tavern begins, a harmonizing quartet of high school friends gets the macabre back story out of the way in the first scene — i.e., their death in an accident on the way to a performance — so humor can take over.
The pretext for the performance’s repertoire is the quartet’s impromptu return from the afterlife. Frankie, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky find their ultimate purpose is to sing the songs they had planned to sing the night they died. It’s “the biggest comeback since Lazarus,” as Sparky puts it.
Performers share chemistry
Each performer’s voice is quite good, but the theater vibrates with strong energy when the harmonizers sing strong chords together. The intentionally awkward choreography scenario provides humor, but it belies the terrific, well-rehearsed sequence of dance numbers.
The audience can sense the natural chemistry among the performers. They’re having a grand time on stage, and the feeling is infectious.
“This show is certainly a blast to perform,” music director and performer Travis West said in an email. “We were fortunate that this particular cast had all worked together before, and they are already friends offstage.”
West explained the difficult task of pairing the right actor with the right vocal part, as well as finding actors who could move well — all of which was the goal of auditions conducted by himself, Wes Seals (direction) and Nathaniel Shaw (Virginia Rep’s artistic director).
“That’s a tricky thing, indeed,” West said. “You may have an actor who is perfect to play Jinx (the shy, terrified one) but who sings bass and can’t hit Jinx’s high tenor notes…Harmony is at the heart of this show, and finding the right blend was the most important thing.”
Some Richmonders will remember Plaid Tidings, the holiday version of Forever Plaidperformed at Swift Creek Millfour years ago — also music-directed by West. Ross also wrote that sequel to Forever Plaid, which premiered in 2001.
His writing takes the audience back to the golden age of boomers’ music not only through song, but with visceral memories, such as slicing one’s fingernail through the new plastic of an album.
References to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” TV’s longest-running variety show, is another 60s touchstone in the musical. (The band was ostensibly killed during a collision with a bus headed to the Beatles’ debut.)
Lively gestures and quick hat-changes by the cast — in numbers such as “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby” and “Matilda” — keep the audience as rapt as any hand-held digital device could.
Getting an audience volunteer to participate in a number that concludes with a kick-line is another traditional but effective theater device for involving people seated beyond the stage.
A line of dialogue humorously references a remembered, unfavorable review of Forever Plaid with the statement that the quartet is to popular music “as Formica is to marble.”
Sarcastic humor aside, the quartet’s music could more aptly be compared to gold — which, like marble, is a precious natural treasure. Many golden moments comprise this show.
In the final song, 1955’s “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” Frankie (played extraordinarily well by Caleb Wade) comments on the chord progression to Smudge (Travis West) at the piano: a sequence of notes running from D minor to F sharp major — with “a hold onto that last note.” The volume of that F sharp major suggests an emotion of triumph.
Then Frankie says, “The perfect chord. One perfect moment. That’s all anyone has the right to ask for.”
Forever Plaid runs through August 25 at the Virginia Repertory Theater, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Rd., Hanover. Single tickets start at $44. Check hanovertarvern.org for matinee/evening performances, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (804) 282-2620.