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Gambit Weekly Shtick in the Mud

By Dalt Wonk

MAY 18, 1998:  Someone told me President George Bush liked Forever Plaid so much, he saw it twice. The story may be apocryphal, but apo-cryphal tales are often truer than the truth.

The show (directed by Sonny Borey and Derek Franklin for its current run at Carlone's Dinner Theatre) is a celebration of "guy groups," the white male quartets of the '50s like the Four Aces, the Four Freshman or -- the epitome of names from that era -- the Crewcuts.

Bright-eyed American youths with Ipana smiles and an unquestioned belief in a status quo, these "guys" sang the anthems of the post-war boom. They seemed to step off a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. They were, in a sense, on the right track -- heading whole-heartedly in the direction society seemed destined to go. What they utterly lacked was rebellion. And rebellion, for better or worse, was to be the wave of the future for the mass market teen consumers who would determine much of what we watch or listen to today.

But while Forever Plaid is a celebration, it also is a spoof. And -- had they hailed from Manhattan rather than the heartland -- this group of earnest young vocalists might well have been called The Four Shnooks. Their names are Frankie, Smudge, Sparky and Jinx, and the names pretty much give you writer Stuart Ross' attitude toward his characters. They are very cute names.

There is an odd twist to the proceedings in that the Plaids, as the boys are affectionately known, are entertaining us posthumously. "En route to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos," a voice informs us, "they were slammed broadside by a school bus filled with eager Catholic teens. The teens escaped injury, but the members of Forever Plaid were killed instantly."

I have no idea what the point is of this ectoplasmic complication, but that's the premise. Deceased for more than three decades, the Plaids are now giving the old act one last go before spiriting away to the Great Four-Part Harmony in the Sky.

The Plaids are gone but not forgotten in Forever Plaid.
Most of the show features the group singing 29 pop ditties from what used be known as Your Hit Parade, like "Catch a Falling Star," "Rags to Riches" and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing."

Eric Haston, Preston Meche, Patrick Mendelson and Christopher Wecklein are personable and talented vocalists -- when they are not unduly hampered by shtick. Their close-harmony group singing is a pleasure, and they are equally at ease in their solos.

Shtick, however, is an integral part of this script. I am happy to report that the audience at Carlone's Dinner Theatre, mellow from the excellent buffet, was utterly taken with all the funny business.

I myself found the "I'm-not-really-experiencing-any-of-this" faux naive acting style taxing (perhaps as the result of a more saturnine disposition). And the fact that many of the gags centered around improbable anatomical humiliations -- like the guy who gets nose bleeds and "forgets" to take the blood-soaked cotton out of his nose for his solo number -- left me with a wan, polite smile on my face so as not ruin the fun of my guffawing neighbors.

There is a marvelous scene in Charlie Chaplin's The Circus in which a gaggle of clowns runs on a treadmill. They tumble and fall and "try to be funny." The results are lugubrious. Meanwhile, the Little Tramp, trying to escape a cop, ducks into the tent and steps onto the treadmill. The cop pursues. They both run for all their worth -- Chaplin in terror, the cop in furious pursuit -- with neither getting anywhere. And it is hilarious. One cannot help but feel Chaplin is not merely being funny, but giving us a lesson in comedy.

A similar moment happened for me in Forever Plaid. After about 90 minutes of "being funny," the Plaids invited an audience member on stage to play the melody part in the familiar "Heart and Soul" piano duet. This young lady's reactions were so natural, her attempts to remain "a dignified good sport" were so simple and honest, she stole the scene as easily as Chaplin did from the circus clowns.

At least, that's how it struck me. But as I say, I am somewhat saturnine. If you are blessed with a more sanguine temperament, a good meal and a broad spoof of "guy groups" might be just your thing.

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