By Lisa A. DuBois
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s Edie Cowan was good friends with playwrights Stuart Ross and James Raitt. She used to sit in on the early incarnations of a new musical they were struggling to develop. “It was originally called Plaid Tidings,” Cowan says, “and about 30 percent of the songs were Christmas songs. At that stage, it was a revue with no book.”
Gradually, Ross began expanding the concept, writing monologues for the characters. He approached Cowan with a new idea for the show: Instead of a holiday revue, the musical would be based on The Plaids, a four-part harmony group who’d been killed in an accident in the 1960s. They’d come back to life and be given one chance to perform the breakout gig that they never made it to. Suddenly, says Cowan, the show had the hook it needed.
Forever Plaid has become one of America’s most popular and long-lived contemporary musical comedies, performed in regional, community, and dinner theaters across the country. Cowan is directing and choreographing The Rep’s current production, which runs through May 24 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The show’s humor lies in the earnestness with which the guys embrace their golden opportunity, its beauty in their crisp rendering of classic tunes from the ’50s and ’60s—“Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “No, Not Much,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Cry.”
“There’s lots of humor, but the arrangements are incredible vocally,” says musical director Jeff Taylor, who’ll provide onstage piano accompaniment. “If I were to sit down as an arranger, I’d be hard-pressed to find one note to change. It’s a purist’s version of the best guy-group harmonies.”
The lovable Plaids—Jinx, Smudge, Frankie, and Sparky—are amateurs on the cusp of professionalism. They’ve choreographed their routines in imitation of the most famous guy-groups of the day—only the Plaids are always a little out of sync, a smidgen off-count, and a bit intensely casual. Having never practiced “Crazy ’Bout Ya Baby” with real microphones, they whip out long-handled toilet plungers—it seems more natural that way. Prepared to play at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, they Muzak-ize popular tunes to make them more appropriate to the setting. For instance, they convert one of Beatles’ classic hits into “She Loves You, Yesiree Bob.”
Cowan is a true stage veteran—her credits include many Tennessee Rep shows as well as original choreography for the off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors and an appearance in the original Broadway company of Annie. In casting the current production of Forever Plaid, she not only sought “four voices coming out of one heart,” but also four guys with inherently “plaid hearts.” Judging by last Tuesday’s full-tech dress rehearsal, it’s obvious that she has found both in the members of this superb cast.
In the role of Jinx, the Plaid who gets a nosebleed whenever he’s nervous, Kevin Raymond sings in an absolutely gorgeous tenor. On the other end of the musical scale, Garris Wimmer, as the mildly dyslexic Smudge, glides through the bass sections and shines in his big solo, “Sixteen Tons.” The inner harmonies are deftly handled by group spokesman Frankie, played by Greg Walter, who delivers a choice version of “Chain Gang,” and Sparky, played by Frank Rains Jr., who nails “Catch a Falling Star.”
Interestingly, Rains, Wimmer, and Walter all studied under Belmont University vocal teacher Marjorie Halbert. In fact, Rains married her daughter, Keri. Halbert should be pleased with her protégés: Not only do they project power and charisma as soloists, they also hit the fine lines required of harmonists.
At the end of the show, when the boys prepare to return to the great hereafter, they talk about the chance to live “inside a good tight chord.” The thrill of singing together, it turns out, surpassed any other dream they might have touched. When Ross was developing the musical’s book, Cowan says, people told him to cut that segment. He refused, insisting that this was the reason he wrote the show.
As Frankie wistfully turns to the audience and sighs, “The perfect chord, one perfect moment—it’s all anyone has the right to ask for...,” Forever Plaid drifts beyond the awkward adolescence of a standard musical revue. With these lines, the play metamorphoses into a heartfelt salute to the great songs of a bygone era, and to the singers whose hearts were truly tartan.
As Frankie wistfully turns to the audience and sighs, “The perfect chord, one perfect momentit’s all anyone has the right to ask for...,” Forever Plaid drifts beyond the awkward adolescence of a standard musical revue. With these lines, the play metamorphoses into a heartfelt salute to the great songs of a bygone era, and to the singers whose hearts were truly tartan.
Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents Forever Plaid, May 6-24 at TPAC’s Polk Theater, 505 Deaderick St. For tickets and show times, call Ticketmaster at 255-9600; info is also available on the Internet at www.ticketmaster.com or therep.hammock.com. Treatseats Discount Tickets ($5 off) are available at Target stores.
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