Thanks to Chris Caggiano and some lady at NCM Fathom (a division of National CineMedia), Michael and I were able to see the one-time-only 20th Anniversary Special “cinecast” of Forever Plaid. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it. It’s a four person musical that opened Off-Broadway in 1990 and ran for many years. (The 20th anniversary, presumably, celebrates one of its pre-New York limited runs in smaller theaters.)
The premise of the show is that a quartet of clean-cut young men, on their way to pick up snazzy plaid tuxedos to top off their burgeoning swing/jazz vocal career, are killed when their Mercury crashes into a busload of Catholic schoolgirls who were headed to watch the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. We are able to watch them perform the show they always meant to do because they have one tiny reprieve from the afterlife. That’s about it for the plot and it always has been. It’s basically a cute excuse to perform a lot of nice 50’s and 60’s tight harmony numbers well, with a wink and a nudge.
The show is now pretty much a staple of regional dinner theatres, and truth be told, that’s probably where it should stay. It’s a cute show and with the right voices, makes for a satisfying dessert. My 86-year-old (I think that’s right) father-in-law would love it. My grandma would have loved it too, if I’d taken her twenty years ago. But alas, she passed several years ago. I was really hoping to love it too because I really dig the sounds of The Hi-Lo’s, who I consider the masters of this kind of tight harmony vocal acrobatics. But in the end, the film and associated live-broadcast performance left me feeling like I’d watched a fun HBO theatre special from 1980, like Annette O’Toole in Vanities or Margot Kidder in Bus Stop — an amusing two hours, but kinda like “donuts for dinner.”
So here I sit, wanting something a little meteor meatier. Why? The voices were just fine. The guys were mostly coming across very sincere, so the jokes played just fine. Some jokes were pretty lame, and the constant bumbling was a bit much to stomach outside of a dinner theatre setting, but I’m not one to quibble about that.
But first of all, the evening was presented as if it were going to be a live broadcast of the stage show. At least, that’s what I thought from the trailer we saw Tuesday at the Harvard Square Lowes. Instead, what we got was a live introduction from Fred Willard at some unknown theater in Los Angeles rambling on about how awesome it was that this was being broadcast in 500 cinemas in the U.S. and Canada. Then they showed a movie. A movie staged and shot months before. Then, the live broadcast returned to Fred Willard’s theater and — to their credit — the cast members performed some live numbers.
Second, the voices were lovely, but they did not have the energy or punch of The Hi-Lo’s. That’s just me, I know, raising my expectations based on a really high bar. The Hi-Lo’s were named that for a reason: a really, really wide range of pitch, including a first tenor that sounded like a freaking coronet. (If you haven’t heard them, lemme play you a few tracks.) Besides a few bass-heavy numbers, the Plaids were more like The Four Freshmen or … I dunno, the Ink Spots. More suited for recordings or concerts than dynamic theatre. In fact, it wasn’t until the after-film live numbers that I could even hear the high tenor wail and then I think it wore on him cause he started to crack or go flat after the first couple numbers.
Third, the direction of the film was just awful. Sorry, but you know how I said it was like an 80’s HBO theatre special? Let me amend that by saying it was like an 80’s HBO theatre special run through Adobe After Effects. Someone didn’t trust the actors to keep our attention and insisted on inserting all kinds of graphics and animation over the performers. Particularly distracting was the sheet music frame around the Scottish number and the floating business cards around their event-related medley. Ick. But what do you expect? The director was Stuart Ross, the man who conceived, wrote, and directed the stage show. All he’s credited with directing on IMDB are this film, one episode of Frasier, and one episode of Veronica’s Closet. It looks like Dad ran Baby’s first birthday through some cheesy iMovie effects.
And finally, the film boasts that it has original cast members from the stage show. Well, David Engel, who plays the bass vocalist Smudge is pretty cool. He’s my favorite performer, all told, in the film. He’s adorably goofy, but not too annoying, and gets an awesome “stud moment” late in the show. But Stan Chandler, who plays the first tenor Jinx is looking… well, like he should be 20 years younger. Oddly, so does Larry Raben, who plays Sparky, the “cut up” of the group. I’m not sure why he was cast, since he was not in the original cast and he’s playing the role created by one of my favorites — Jason Graae. Not sure what Jason’s been up to lately. He must be lying low. The fourth member, Frankie was played by Daniel Reichard of Jersey Boys fame. He was pretty good, but I can’t say I have the same attraction to him that Chris does. He’s a little too pretty.
The evening was not bad by any means, however. There is a singalong component to Forever Plaid, which I love under most contexts. I was singing my lungs out to “Matilda” along with a few others in the audience. And the after-film performance had a bit of that too. It was kind of difficult, since there were only 17 people in our audience at the Fenway 13 cinema (including the four of us who got in on Chris’s press comps), and the live performance tried to divide us into four-part harmony. But WTF. I took the high road and sang the first tenor in falsetto because there were so few people there to be embarrassed in front of.
But there were two really special parts of the evening. In the post-film performance, the Plaids trot out — OMG — Carol Effing Channing!!! She sings “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” admonishing the audience for applauding after the first verse because “I’m not DZHUN yeyat!” And then the Plaids try to get her to teach “us” how to sing “Sh-boom, Sh-boom. Ya-da-da-da-da, Ya-da-da-da.” But she’s unsure if she’s singing the right number of “Ya-da-da’s.” Priceless. And God knows, this may be the closest I get to seeing her live before she leaves us!
The other special part was getting to meet Chris and his friend Victor, who he knows from the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Such charismatic men, both! At one point, I turned to Michael to explain that Forever Plaid was a bit like Nunsense, but since it had very little plot, it was more like Oil City Symphony. Chris grabbed my hand and said, “You just said Oil City Symphony. We are going to get on just fine.” Or something like that. My heart melted in a totally non-adulturous way.
Here’s to the power of digital media. It can stream Fred Willard live to 17 people in Boston. Or it can make really awesome friends.