Imagine you’re on the path to achieving a greatness that eludes most, right on the precipice of triumph, only to meet a fate that is too cruel and unjust.. In the musical “Forever Plaid” by Stuart Ross, which made its debut Off Broadway in 1989, and is playing at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, Calif., through March 5th, this is the predicament that befalls a four-man harmony group obsessed with plaid. The ironic demise of The Plaids, which occurs circa the 1950s when a bus of schoolgirls en route to seeing The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” careens into their car, becomes the precursor to a redemptive resurrection more than half a century later.
Carrying lit candles signifying their own deaths from years prior, the boys return, this time in the modern era to right a tragic wrong, and re-engage a magical harmonic musicality among them, each singing his part along a chord to form a collective tone greater than themselves. With much to celebrate, and sundry songs to sing in any setting (e.g., commercials, weddings, religious revivals), they pick up right where they left off, with no time to grieve their past. Needless to say, it isn’t long before they revert back to their idiosyncratic high school selves, basking in their merriment, and evoking similar positivity from spectators. Certainly, this is the wonderfully recurring impression that we get when watching the International City Theatre’s version of this musical, which is produced by Caryn Desai, co-directed by Scott Dreier and Kurtis Simmons, and musically directed by Bill Wolfe.
The four-man cast features three UCLA graduates, including Jackson Hinden as Sparky, Travis Leland as Frankie, Nick Tubbs as Jinx, and Robert Petrarca (who studied musical theatre in Buffalo) as Smudge. They are joined on stage for the 90-minute show by Bill Wolfe (piano) and Jonathan Alvarez (bass).
As the oddball Sparky, Hinden oftentimes attracts all eyes to him. His energy never flags, and his commitment to his character never wanes. He is a powerhouse who brings an infectious intensity to the stage, winning over the audience with a weirdness that even incorporates Jim Carrey-like facial expressions while singing, all the while his notes remain seamless. For instance, as Sparky, Hinden will take out his retainer and (obliviously) have a group member hold it, or he’ll go absolutely ballistic with a plunger during a number that involves The Plaids using the household toilet-cleaners as physical and sound (“blopp”) props. Additionally, he even plays the esoteric Melodihorn (keyboard with attached blow pipe), but it isn’t until a hilarious childhood story told by him and his brother Jinx that we understand why Sparky is hilariously eccentric.
As Jinx, Tubbs is a fabulous tenor, who is able to effortlessly transition between soft singing and full-out belting. His character is one who suffers from perpetual nose bleeds, and there is a hysterical moment when he removes seemingly endless wads from his nose before beginning his solo set. With each song, Tubbs comes across as a seasoned performer, whose talent is deservedly spotlighted.
Leland plays the smooth-talking, albeit asthma-having Frankie — a charmer who might bring a lovely young lady from the crowd to join the on-stage festivities, be the one to apprise everyone that the pianist (Wolfe) is missing because he has taken his mandatory union break, or coach the audience to sing their vocal part in “Matilda.” Leland has a pleasant crooning voice, and evokes a certain leadership about his performance that might persuade one to think that his character is the leader of The Plaids.
Last but not least is Petrarca as Smudge, whose bass voice is unmistakably memorable. Yet, in addition to some of the impossibly lower notes he hits, Petrarca is able to swing his musical pitch in the opposite direction just the same. Furthermore, he briefly shines as a pianist, as well as a resourceful percussionist using only a spoon and a glass ketchup bottle, and as a fire-swallower during a topsy-turvy scene that has the members change several costumes in a make-believe appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Petrarca also effectively emotes his character’s personality quirks, including anxiousness (Smudge suffers from ulcers), and a love for collecting jukebox records.
Together as The Plaids, the actors compellingly demonstrate their characters’ stories, but they also impart something about themselves – specifically, a top-notch proficiency about singing in harmony with each other. In effect, they become the fictional group whose story they portray — to the extent that when they vocalize “Catch a Falling Star,” “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” and their own rendition of The Beatles’ “She Loves You” (among 29 tunes in all), we wishfully wonder if these performers should legitimately take inspiration from their art and take The Plaids on the road.
For more information about “Forever Plaid” at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, please visit ictlongbeach.org