By Bridgette M. Redman
There are many reasons that “Forever Plaid” is a perennial crowd pleaser, and the cast and crew at Encore Musical Theater are quick to capitalize on all of them in their production.
Perhaps the most crucial element of the show’s success is the way it co-opts the audience into encouraging its nervous Plaids and coaxing them into believing that they are loved. The four Plaids at Encore, Steve DeBruyne (Frankie), Phill Harmer (Smudge), Sebastian Gerstner (Sparky) and Leo Daignault (Jinx), excel at this duty. They charm the audience with their adorable insecurity from Jinx’s stiff fear to Sparky’s eager amazement at the audience’s applause.
Having just stepped out of a nexus where they’ve hung out in limbo since being killed by a bus of parochial students while they were on their way to a gig, they’ve got their one shot at the big time before they have to go back to the silence of the dead. They’re back to put on the concert that they were on their way to perform, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to see that the foursome is more than a little nervous.
The second crowd-pleaser is the trip down memory lane, especially for those who still remember the “Ed Sullivan Show” and musical concerts before the Beatles revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll. The Plaids perform the hits of yesteryear along with the coordinated, exaggerated dance moves that were popular in the ’50s. With just a piano and string bass for accompaniment and microphones the only electronica in sight, the Plaids sing such numbers as “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much” and “Catch a Falling Star.”
The simply elegant set with its rich blues, dazzling lights and occasional special effects with bubbles and smoke complete the trifecta of dowry offerings that propose a perfect evening to its audience.
While the chords of the singers never quite reached the goosebump inspiring levels that Frankie describes before the final number, the Encore’s Plaids more than make up for it with their charm and enthusiasm. They’re telling the story of a quartet that never hit the big time, in part because they did have more charm than singing talent. Oh, they’re good and the music is a delightful treat, but they remind one more of a cover band than star performers.
The advantage is that the characters and their stage fright are far more believable. While the actors are primed from the moment they walk on stage, their characters warm up slowly with a neediness for audience reassurance as they psych themselves up into performing the concert they’ve waited nearly four decades to put on. They share their quirks in a most appealing fashion. Daignault draws eyes to Jinx’ fear, winning sympathy for his nose bleeds and real excitement when he finally breaks out of his shell to croon during “Cry.”
Given that the quartet was in their early 20s when they died, one must believe that time didn’t pass normally in limbo, for the boys have aged, though not quite as many decades as have passed since their death. Given that Ted Neeley could reprise his role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” when he was more than twice the age of his character, we can forgive these actors for being a bit long in the tooth for their roles.
While there are moments of charm and sweetness, it is the humor that provides some of the best moments of the show. The medley tribute to hard working men with “Sixteen Tons” and “Chain Gang” combined great singing with quirky humor using ketchup bottles, spoons and comic moves. Nor does one have to have ever watched the “Ed Sullivan Show” to appreciate the antics of the Plaids’ spoof.
Director and choreographer Barb Cullen keeps her quartet moving and finds the perfect way to spotlight each of their charms. It makes for an entertaining evening that focuses on the laughs and the entertainment value of this musical favorite.
The Encore Musical Theater Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through May 15. $25-$28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org