Return of the lads in ‘Plaid’

Posted Nov. 25, 2010, at 10:19 p.m.

Plaid” is rad. “Plaid” is sometimes mad or sad. But mostly, people are just very, very glad that “Plaid Tidings,” the holiday sequel to “Forever Plaid,” is set to premiere next week at the Penobscot Theatre Company.

After “Forever Plaid” broke box office records for the PTC last November, it was decided that the sequel, “Plaid Tidings,” would have to be 2010’s Christmas show. Only Dominick Varney (Sparky) and Ben Laymen (Jinx) from the original cast were able to come back for “Tidings,” as Joshua Schmersal and Nathan Halvorson (Frankie and Smudge) had commitments preventing them from returning to perform — though Halvorson is handling choreography again. Dover-Foxcroft native and sonorous baritone Jesse Havea takes the part of Smudge, while New York actor Peter Carrier performs as bandleader and crooner Frankie.

“Plaid Tidings” is a similar show to “Forever” — four vocalists and a band, led by newcomer Shoshana Sied-Green, sing classic songs in four-part harmony. The big difference is that every angle of the production this time around is a bit more complex.

“The writers took it to a whole other level,” said Varney. “The script is funnier. The music is harder and a lot more inventive. We’re dancing a lot more. There’s just a lot more to everything.”

The relatively straightforward interpretations of American standards in “Forever Plaid” are still there — along with more obscure songs and a cavalcade of holiday favorites. Then all those songs are melded together into medleys, or “mash-ups,” as the “Plaid” cast calls them. Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” turns into a choirlike “Hallelujah,” a medley of Irish and Hawaiian songs moves into a Hanukkah tribute, and a musical setting of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” puts a unique spin on the famous poem.

Those who loved the four-part harmonies of the first “Plaid” will be delighted by the second. And there are a lot of those people out there who loved the first “Plaid”; as mentioned, “Forever Plaid” was Penobscot Theatre’s most profitable show to date. Director Scott R.C. Levy hopes to repeat that this year, and early box office reports show that the company could very well accomplish that goal.

“I made the decision back in January when I was planning this whole season to do ‘Plaid Tidings.’ We did ‘A Christmas Carol’ last year, and in looking for the main holiday production this year, it was just sort of a no-brainer,” he said. “The only difficulty was that there’s no cast recording. ‘Forever Plaid’ has that, but ‘Plaid Tidings’ doesn’t have as much of a pedigree. We took it on faith that it would be as good as ‘Forever Plaid,’ and fortunately, it is.”

Stuart Ross, who was commissioned by the Pasadena Playhouse in California during the winter after the Sept. 11 attacks, wrote “Plaid Tidings” more than 10 years after the original show.

“He was hesitant to write a sequel, but that year, it seemed to him like the right time to do a holiday version that was really cozy and cheery,” said Levy. “Everybody needed that at that time.”

The challenge for PTC is to keep “Tidings” fresh, without sacrificing the lighthearted charm of its predecessor. Halvorson, who only is in Maine for one week to choreograph the show, is aware of that challenge from every angle — as a performer and as a dancer.

“There’s a reason why people either love or hate sequels,” said Halvorson. “It’s all about finding a balance between bigger, better, more and staying true to the original reason why people loved it. That’s the task at hand.”

To that end, Halvorson has upped the dance aspect of the show in a big way.

“We’re dancing five times more than last year,” he said. “The music calls for it. There are dance breaks written into the script.”

“We’re doing things we wouldn’t have dreamed of last year,” said Varney. “It’s wild. People will love it.”

Halvorson is in the middle of an incredibly busy semester at graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he’s in the midst of directing Steve Martin’s “WASP” — another Martin venture for the director-choreographer-actor, who directed Martin’s “The Underpants” for PTC in the spring. Though he can’t return to the part of Smudge, he is pleased to able to return for one week to choreograph the show.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of not being involved,” said Halvorson. “I love everything about this show. The music, the story, the dancing. Everything. I had to be here.”

Will the Plaid lads live up to the hype? Will they once again be the talk of the town? Will the PTC have multiple sold-out nights? Next week’s premiere will tell. For Ben Laymen, who plays the shy, sweet-natured tenor Jinx, there’s some pressure — but it’s tempered by the fact that “Plaid” is, at the end of the day, a whole lot of fun.

“There’s a little bit of extra added pressure, sure,” said Laymen. “But we know these characters. They’re friends.”

“Plaid Tidings” will be performed at 8 p.m. Dec. 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18; at 7 p.m. Dec. 9, 15, 16, 21, 22 and 23; at 4 p.m. Dec. 4 and 11; and at 3 p.m. Dec. 5, 12 and 19. For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.penobscottheatre.orgwww.penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.

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