April 21, 2018
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Happiness is a warm ‘Plaid’ blanket

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

Remember harmony?

The sound of four voices woven together into a blanket of song that wrapped and warmed both your “Heart and Soul?”

Well, it’s back in a really big way in a truly great show at the Bangor Opera House. “Forever Plaid,” a musical tribute to the guy groups of the 1950s and a time we like to call “innocent,” is just what theatergoers need to insulate themselves from the onslaught of winter after an exceedingly short summer and already fast-fading fall.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of the show has “Magic Moments” galore. Producing Artistic Director Scott R.C. Levy resisted the “Temptation” to focus only on the songs. He and the cast mined the collective memory of the audience, many of whom found “Shangri-la” in a stack of 45s just as the Plaids did, and served up a delightful mix of merriment and music.

There’s “No, Not Much” to the plot of the show, conceived by Stuart Ross in 1988. The Plaids — Frankie, Smudge, Sparky and Jinx — met in the audiovisual club when they were high school students in the late 1950s. They formed the Plaids and started singing gigs at school and around town. The Plaids continued performing after graduation, but tragedy struck just as their “Rags to Riches” dream was about to come true.

The four died when their car was hit — “Sh-Boom” — on Feb. 9, 1964, by a busload of Catholic schoolgirls on their way to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The boys are resurrected to perform their show just once before an audience with a three-piece combo in The Fusel Lounge at the Airport Hilton.

Joshua Schmersal, Nathan Halvorson, Dominick Varney and Ben Layman as the Plaids work together like a “Chain Gang” to create distinctive characters. It is, however, the way their voices blend together that gives the audience so many “Moments to Remember.” Between songs, the guys tell their stories in short, poignant monologues.

It is impossible to single out one actor-singer as better than the rest. There is a rare egalitarian feel to their performances and the Plaids, which most rock groups weren’t able to sustain. There’s no trace of the “Gotta Be This or That” ego that can and does compete for attention onstage.

The unnamed trio of Colin Graebert on piano, Gaylen Smith on bass and Chris Viner on drums under Graebert’s direction make theatergoers “Cry” for more. They also give new life to music written long before they were twinkles in their grandparents’, let alone their parents’, eyes.

The set by Erik D. Diaz is designed to resemble a television set when the appliance was a piece of furniture, not a wall hanging. It pulls the audience into the box when watching it was an event. Shon Causer’s lighting design and Elham Khavari’s costumes capture the joy of the time and its simplistic silliness such as making plaid a signature.

The highlight of “Forever Plaid” is a 3½-minute re-creation of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Theatergoers who have never seen the show will enjoy the farcical frantic pace, but won’t understand why people over 55 are holding their sides laughing long after it’s over at the antics of a performing seal, a dancing “Lady of Spain,” talking puppet hands, spinning plates and a guy named Jose Jimenez.

The Plaids and PTC invite the audience to “Dream Along With Me” in a journey backward in time to a place where “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Papa Loves to Mambo” and tossing “Three Coins in a Fountain” changed people’s destinies. Hurry inside the Bangor Opera House before “She Loves You” forever transforms the music and the times.

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