The history of rock ’n’ roll is always viewed through rose-tinted glasses — or mirrored, black aviator glasses depending on your style. While leather jackets, pompadours and hot rods are the ideal everyone has of the early days of rock, the reality includes just as many letterman jackets, poodle skirts and sock hops.
The latter scenario is the world in which Sparky, Frankie, Smudge and Jinx live, the four characters in “Forever Plaid,” the new Penobscot Theatre production set to open in previews Wednesday. They’re stuck there, well, forever. The premise of the show is that they die in a freak accident involving a cherry red ’54 Mercury and a busload of Catholic schoolgirls. The Plaids are reunited for one night only to sing along, and that’s the magical night in which the show takes place.
The guys, known as the Plaids, sing the classic late-1950s to early-1960s four-part close harmony that’s related to barbershop, known in real life as the music performed by groups such as the Four Aces and the Crew Cuts. Learning that singing style has been no small feat for Dominick Varney, Joshua Schmersal, Nathan Halvorson and Benjamin Layman.
“I was in the Maine Steiners for six years, but still, I wasn’t really prepared for this level of harmony,” said Varney, referring to the longtime a cappella group, composed of University of Maine students. “This is so much more difficult. It’s learning all these great pop songs, in all their original forms. This is how they were performed in the 1950s by the original groups. You want to do that justice.”
For the last month, director Scott R.C. Levy and music director Colin Graebert have run their cast through an intense gamut of songs, ranging from “Three Coins in the Fountain,” made popular by the Four Aces, to “Perfidia,” a hit for countless ’50s artists, including Mel Torme and Nat King Cole. Twenty-nine pop songs are used to tell the story of the Plaids, a brotherhood of high school friends with golden voices, whose burgeoning career was cut short by fate.
“It’s an hour and a half of nonstop, rich, complicated four-part harmony and dancing,” said Levy. “It’s very fast-paced and very funny. It’s been made more complicated by the fact that, with the exception of Nathan, it’s all local actors, so everyone has a day job. But they’re troopers. We’ve worked really, really hard to make it really, really good.”
All four characters are distinctly different — Sparky (Varney) is the innocent, optimistic naif, while Smudge (Halvorson) is a neurotic hypochondriac. Frankie (Schmersal) is the motivated leader of the group, and Jinx (Layman) is the shy, nervous sweetheart, who just loves to sing.
“Jinx was only asked to be in the group because he can hit all those high notes. I can hit them, too, and wow, there are a lot of them” said Layman, who has appeared in “A Year With Frog and Toad” and “Little Shop of Horrors” with the PTC. “This is the hardest singing I’ve ever done.”
The singing may be the star of the show, but “Plaid” also is, in large part, a send-up of the early days of television. The set is designed by Boston-based designer Erik D. Diaz, who has done sets for a number of productions of “Forever Plaid.” With its sweeping, sparkly arch and glittering thrust stage, it recalls classic variety and talk show sets, from Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan to Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. And there are interludes throughout the show featuring madcap, old-fashioned comedy — the kind that hasn’t been seen on TV for more than 40 years.
Halvorson, fresh off his success directing PTC’s last production, “Steel Magnolias,” is not only acting in the show, but he also choreographed it.
“In all truth, a lot of the dancing is a little anachronistic, because those early groups didn’t do a lot of complicated choreography. It was mostly the African American groups of that time that did real dancing,” said Halvorson. “I borrowed a lot from Frankie Valli, who came a little later but was really fabulous. The show isn’t a perfect replica of the early ’60s, since it takes place both now and then. The show is happening in 2009. The Plaids are stuck in 1964. It’s kind of timeless, in that regard.”
Regardless of whether the action is in 1964 or 2009, the common thread with all the Plaids is their genuine, all-American decency — a kind of old-fashioned virtue that dissipated and became unfashionable as time moved on.
“They’re all good guys. They’re all decent guys that never got in trouble and always treated girls right,” said Levy. “There’s a dedication in the program, by the writer of the play, Stuart Ross, about being a Plaid, to ‘all the good guys, who never made it to first base, or if they did, never told anyone.’”
“Forever Plaid” will have a pay-what-you-will open dress rehearsal at 7 p.m. Tuesday, followed by two preview performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, and continues through the weekend at 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. The show runs Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 29-Nov. 1 and Nov. 5-8. For ticket information and more show times, call the Bangor Opera House box office at 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org.