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Theatre in Review: Plaid Tidings (York Theatre Company)

James Followell at the piano with (clockwise from top) John-Michael Zuerlein, Bradley Beahen, Ciaran McCarthy, and Jose Luaces. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Twenty-five years after their Off Broadway debut, the men of Forever Plaid are still dead -- but they still amuse from time to time. In case you've forgotten -- or never knew -- the conceit of Stuart Ross' musical entertainment is an evocation of all those Four Freshmen-style male singing groups that were big in the 1950s and early '60s. Forever Plaid consists of four young men, all store clerks or middle managers who played bowling alleys and church groups in central Pennsylvania. On a fateful night in 1964, they were mowed down by a school bus filled with Catholic teens on their way to New York to see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Transferred to the astral plain, there were permitted to return to earth for one final show.

Plaid Tidings reworks the concept for Forever Plaid with a holiday theme. Once again, the Plaids are returned to Earth, with little guidance about what they are supposed to do next. Helped along by a series of heavenly messages from Rosemary Clooney, they realize that it is their duty to perform a holiday show in the style of their hero, Perry Como. (In the scattered format of Plaid Tidings, the mention of Clooney necessarily cues a rendition of "Mambo Italiano." But this and a few other numbers aside -- and, of course, for ecumenical purposes, "The Dreidel Song" -- a general Christmas theme prevails.)

As comedy, Plaid Tidings is extremely hit-or-miss. There are lame jokes about Imodium, nosebleeds, asthma, and a trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where, we are told, there is a specialty store called "Cheeses of Nazareth." The entire what-are-we-doing-here premise is strained, and not just because it is reprised from the original show. We know what their true purpose is: They are meant to sing, and during certain dull stretches, you may find yourself wishing they would just get on with it.

For when all four voices blend in close harmony, the result is as smooth and creamy as those vanilla milkshakes you got at the soda shop of your youth. When they sing numbers like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "The Christmas Song," and the Steve Allen hit "Cool Yule," the low-rent jokes give way to marvelous musical sophistication. There's also a delightful medley of Christmas novelty songs that climaxes with "Mele Kalikimaka," a pseudo-Hawaiian hit once made famous by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.

Some of the comic material works. One number is performed with plumbers' helpers, the pop of the suction cups acting as the rhythm section. A recitation of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" becomes an exercise in soul-baring for Frankie, played by Bradley Beahen. A member of the audience is brought up on stage to help with playing a set of bells. The foursome sings along with some old footage of Como (with whom, we learn, they had fateful, also traffic-related, encounter). In what can be called a Forever Plaid classic, the group recreates the allure of the Ed Sullivan Show in three minutes and eleven seconds, evoking, in rapid-fire fashion, The Vienna Boys' Choir, The Rockettes, Señor Wences, Liberace, Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez, Topo Gigio, The Singing Nun, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. By the way, if you recognize these names, you have a substantially enhanced shot at enjoying Plaid Tidings.

Aside from Beahen, the other Plaids are Jose Luaces, Ciarán McCarthy, and John-Michael Zuerlein, all of whom sing with seemingly effortless skill. James Morgan reworks his set from Rothschild & Son, York's previous production, decking it with glitter and twinkle lights to good effect. Michael Megliola's lighting helps create the right warm, colorful atmosphere. This is not the most accomplished of the York's holiday-time attractions, but it is an audience-pleaser and it should keep the theatre filled for the next few weeks with audiences who miss the good old days of holiday specials starring Perry, Bing, Frank, Dean, and Andy. -- David Barbour

(14 December 2015)

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