All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“The Godfather, Part 2” and the last entries in the Harry Potter series aside, my long-standing opinion is sequels are generally not as sharp as originals for one of two reasons. If someone besides the creator ( Note the small “c”) writes or directs the sequel, the commanding vision is gone. The person who intimately knows the essence of the material and its characters is missing. If the same person is at the helm, he or she often uses his best ideas for the original and doesn’t have enough new ideas left for the follow-ups.
Stuart Ross adds a new wrinkle to the latter situation. As long as there are enough pop tunes, novelty songs, and ballads that lend themselves to close harmony from the ’50s and’60s’, his supply of material for variations of his 1990 hit, “Forever Plaid,” is inexhaustible. The combined canons of Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, and Peggy Lee alone provide enough ammunition for a dozen shows. (Obligato, pizzicato; hot diggety, dog diggety; and a pomegranate too, if you catch my Drifters.)
Ross’s problem, his thorn if you will, is “Forever Plaid” also included a lot of camp shtick. In the context of the show, the exaggerated bits and nerdy character set-ups worked. They colored, rather than intruding on, James Raitt’s magnificent arrangements, the vocal and physical playfulness of the cast, and the overall enjoyment of the show. Enough of Ross’s glunk was harmless, and some of it was even amusing as a kind of relief from a steady stream of music.
This is not true of Ross’s book for “Plaid Tidings,” the Christmas rendition of his justifiably oft-produced series of “Plaid” entertainments. In this piece, some of the book is insufferable. Dialogue and stage business that larkily diverted in “Forever Plaid” turns into dopey filler in its Yuletide cousin. The fitting and intentional preciousness that informed “Forever Plaid” is gone. The book scenes are an intrusion that make you wish, upon a Bethlehem star, “Plaid Tidings” was sung through, its sequences paused momentarily for the members of the quartet to say something sweet or sentimental about themselves, each other, or their families.
Alas, that is not the case. Yet the show at Bucks County Playhouse is a “Tidings” of comfort and joy. (Oh, the contagiousness of corniness!).
Director Gordon Greenberg, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and four wonderful singer-comedians handily rescue Ross from self-sabotage. Just listening to Ben Mayne’s pure, expressive crooning, marveling at Sean Bell’s vocal and physical range, catching the naughty glint in Nick Cearley’s eyes , and seeing the spirit exuded by Mitch McCarrell does more than save the day. It turns “Plaid Tidings” from an occasional fiasco to a lively funfest that is at its best when it leaves antics behind and gets around to music. At that point, the shtick becomes part of the act and, thanks to Greenberg and especially Latarro, integrates fully into the show. It doesn’t interrupt the grand harmonies to which the perfectly matched Mayne, Bell, Cearley, and McCarrell treat the BCP audience, let alone intrude upon them.
However he may have lost control of it, Ross has developed an entertaining formula for his “Plaid” shows. Four young adults, just out of high school and working at survival or entry level jobs don their plaid tuxes to assemble concerts in which their vocal versatility couples with physical dexterity to create a show that has a good proportion of naïve silliness while deftly serving the songs Ross selects for his fictional quartet to do. The overriding premise is the Plaids were killed in an auto accident that involved a school bus full of Catholic school girls and sing now as part of a celestial caprice that grants them one performance of the show they were planning to present on the evening of their demise. For “Plaid Tidings,” the group finds themselves in New Hope, Pa. via the intercession of Rosemary Clooney who has a heavenly yen to hear them sing Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song.”
Frankie, Sparky, Smudge, and Jinx, the names Ross gave The Plaids, have become a popular staple of regional theater, and justifiably so.
Much depends on the cast and director of a “Plaid” production. Quality can vary if a director is too loose or too frivolous in devising comic material or if the singers do not have the tight harmony that makes the ’50s tunes sound nostalgically terrific.
Luckily, Greenberg is a directorial Goldilocks who gets everything he touches “just right” as he wisely walks a shrewd line of allowing Ross’s hijinks space to unfold quickly and cleanly, so his BCP production can get on to the parts of “Plaid Tidings” that show why Ross’s franchise is such a constant winner, the parts that boast true theatrical creativity and a keen ear for musical style. Sean Bell also helps by making any of Smudge’s bits funny or touching in some way that mitigates Ross’s most egregious overdoing.
Bell and his castmates make BCP’s “Plaid Tidings” a joy. Their singing is superb, but they are also adept at Lorin Latarro’s clever choreography that animates Greenberg’s production and adds the right kind of movement and élan to the show. Latarro’s dance moves are crisp and smart. They radiate with enhancement while Ross’s book often smacks of gimmickry. Unnecessary gimmickry because “Plaid Tidings” doesn’t need more shtick than a few reminders of the quartets’ individual character traits and its tributes of sorts to Rosie Clooney and Perry Como.
Enough of Ross’s excesses. It’s the Greenberg and Latarro’s sense of fun and the cast’s exuberance that count, and that exists in bushels.
Ben Mayne galvanizes the production with his first solo piece, a beautiful rendition of Wright, Forrest, and Borodin’s “Stranger in Paradise” (from “Kismet”) that fills thte theater with gorgeous sound, augmented by the wonderful harmonies of the “Tidings” cast. Mayne sings with purpose of a kind one worried might never materialize during the frantic opening Ross plots. Suddenly you have something to pay attention to, and you want to listen. Mayne is full-voiced and excellently expressing the romance and loveliness of the song. Music is dominating folderol, and you see how good “Plaid Tidings” can be. In the first act, Ross veers away from the music too often for total comfort, but Mayne and his fellow performers just as often pull it back into focus and keep you smiling rather than grousing. Their sound is so good, you want this ensemble to remain together as an actual quartet.
Sean Bell works a major miracle by taking a sequence that looks as if it’s going to strangle his character, Smudge, in a heap of cornball shtick and turning it into something warm and memorable. Deserted on stage while the other Plaids tend to their various chronic ailments — a nosebleed, asthma, etc. — Bell has to entertain with a box of Plaid memorabilia he finds and some stories about how he, from a broken home, only saw both of his parents on Christmas when they would gather and watch the annual Andy Williams Christmas special on TV.
During a monologue that is mostly comic, but also sentimental, Bell manages to keep any silliness in control while making you care about Smudge and his happiness at seeing his disjointed family at peace and together for one night every year. Her also has a deft way at introducing music to the sequence by launching into one of Williams’s several Christmas hits, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Eventually he is joined by his henchmen, and they blend “Merry Christmas” into the mix for a delightful passage that is one of the most wonderful parts of Greenberg’s production.
Bell shows he is a triple threat in this sequence, maybe a quadruple threat. Smudge is supposed to be the most clumsy and stage-frightened of the Plaids. Bell uses this, but as he becomes immersed in Smudge’s story, he loses his bashfulness and makes the character touchingly human, showing his acting ability. He also has a repertoire of expressions and physical moves that serve this portion of the show but are seen throughout Greenberg’s staging. Then, there’s the singing. Bell has an impressive range. A bass baritone, he handles the deepest of bottom notes with unstrained aplomb while being able to go into higher pitches, even second tenor range, when called upon. This gives Bell intensity while singing harmony and in his solos. He is eventually the Plaid you watch and attend to the most even as Mayne consistently brings “Plaid Tidings” into musical focus, and McCarrell glows with a sort of juvenile enthusiasm.
Bell’s partner in comic crime is Nick Cearley, who has a wonderful voice but also animates comic bits and is a fine dancer. Mitch McCarrell, whose voice ranges above tenor, hits high notes with grace and ease.
The harmony of this particular cast is so grand, their sound provides even more of an impetus to want more and more music than slogging through Stuart Ross’s painful jokes does. When the Plaids are singing, every Christmas cliché about merriness, brightness, joy, good tidings, heavenly hosts, etc. comes into play. The Plaids’ concert is that enjoyable.
That’s why in my heart of hearts, I wish that Ross opted for a true concert, wall-to-wall music, and let Greenberg and the talented Latarro provide the byplay and dances that give the show some variety. I realize there needs to be time to set up new sequences and that broad comedy is part of the “Plaid” formula. I also realize voices need some rest, but it is while Mayne, Bell, Cearley, and McCarrell are singing that “Plaid Tidings” shows its majesty and makes spirits the brightest.
There’s room for jokes. A medley of about two dozen Christmas songs performed within five minutes hits its mark. Non-holiday tunes like “Sh-Boom” represents the kind of novelty number that can change pace and provide comedy that isn’t shtick. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan to keep things ecumenical. In addition to “Mambo Italiano,” part of a tribute to Clooney, Ross gives us a “Mambo in a Winter Wonderland.” The second act, which is more chocked with songs, is more successful because comedy can be built in to numbers instead of standing self-consciously alone.
I have long admired James Raitt’s arrangements for “Plaid” shows. For “Plaid Tidings,” he’s joined by Brad Ellis, Raymond Berg, and Ed Snyder in setting the songs. Phil Reno and bassist Shane Aaserud provide wonderful accompaniment for the quartet, making their two instruments sound like a band. Reno is a good sport when he finds himself included in one of Ross’s gambits. Of course, the Plaids sometimes help out with percussion and at one point, with industrial sized drain plungers one of the characters borrows from the hardware store so the group can improvise a suction sound.
Jennifer Caprio does a great job with costumes. I love the tuxes the Plaids wear on arrival and how they retain their cummerbunds even when doing a number in their undershirts — or skivvies, which should have made Nick Cearley feel at home. (He is half of an NYC cabaret act called “The Skivvies.”) The guys also look sharp in their Perry Como cardigans. I had one myself when I was a kid, and a Perry Como sport jacket to go with it. (Hot diggety!) Michael Carnahan’s set is cleverly all-purpose. Rob Denton provides a great lighting effect when the Plaids appear.
“Plaid Tidings” runs through Sunday, December 28, at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 or Christmas, Dec. 25. Tickets range from $59.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-862-2121 or by visiting www.bcptheater.org.