“Forever Plaid” at ACTC
A sincere homage to the original (’50s) boy bands
By Eric Marchese
Is there a jukebox musical more popular than “Forever Plaid”?
If so, whatever that show is has been given a run for its money by the hugely popular Off-Broadway musical revue by Stuart Ross.
The show was initially produced in 1987 and had various stagings in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York before its official 1989 opening in New York.
If you can’t call to mind the many Southern California productions of “Plaid” since that time, don’t feel bad. That number has been staggering. The sheer volume of local “Plaid” stagings simply underscores the show’s enduring popularity.
American Coast Theater Company’s upcoming new production will likely draw two camps: “Forever Plaid” junkies who can’t get enough of the show, and “Forever Plaid” newbies who have heard about the show but, for whatever reasons, have yet to see it.
For those unfamiliar with “Plaid,” it features a quartet of clean-cut high-school pals who, circa 1964, form The Plaids, their own close-harmony “guy group” à la The Four Freshmen.
As we learn at the top of the show, the boys are on their way to record their first album when they’re killed in a tragic collision. Ironically, the vehicle that kills them is a bus loaded with Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see a world famous male rock quartet, The Beatles, in their American TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Ross’ script depicts the four young men as they realize, to their astonishment, that they’ve been resurrected from the afterlife and will have one and only one chance to realize the musical glory that eluded them in life before they’re spirited back to their eternal reward.
The Plaids are comprised of Francis, aka Frankie, the group’s most handsome member and its lead singer, and his musically talented but socially awkward pals, Sparky, Jinx and Smudge.
The show features a wide variety of musical genres, with a playlist that includes “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Shangri-La,” “Moments to Remember,” “Heart and Soul” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Four of the musical numbers each merge two songs, and the show also features two medleys combining multiple songs.
Susan K. Berkompas, the production’s director and ACTC’s producing artistic director, calls the perennially popular show “an homage to the ’50s original boy band – not the boy bands of the ’80s and ’90s, but the original four-part harmony quartets.” The vocal music, she said, is “barbershop in technique but not in style. We’re in the land of quartets and standing microphones, dinner jackets and bowties.”
Berkompas said “a certain reverence goes along with ‘Plaid’ and the whole idea of ritual and tradition that kind of quartet represents.” One aspect of the show that strongly appeals to her is the honesty and humility of its protagonists, who are dedicated, heart and soul, to “a code of conduct… based on tradition and ritual.”
That code is referred to and spelled out in the show's book as “the code of Plaid.” Its guidance is strict, and its members take it seriously and are duty-bound to uphold it.
“They must honor the quartet before they honor themselves,” Berkompas said. “Each of them will add to the songs and scenes that take place within the songs in a way where they’re generous with each other. They never make a joke to spite one another or make a fellow Plaid look bad.
“It’s all about helping each other as a group – to present the best group they can be. It’s not about the individual.”
“Because the Plaids have to be so honest and humble, everything germinates from them wanting to become a success with their voices and to share their gifts with others. Nothing about them is overbearing and cocky.”
Berkompas said the best productions of “Forever Plaid” strike a balance between the show’s heart and its humor. “The guys are hilarious, but they never sacrifice the songs for a joke.” Everything in the show, she said, “comes out of their sincerity to be the best. Sometimes they fail, failures based on the individual challenges each character has.”
The show’s choreography, she noted, “is supposed to look like one or all of them helped to choreograph their own numbers,” which creates a challenge of having dance moves that are “polished” yet not excessively “about technique or beautiful moves.”
For her cast, Berkompas said she drew from among musical theater actors who have previously worked with ACTC, alumni of Vanguard University’s musical theater program, and current students enrolled in the program. The leads are Luke Desmond as Frankie, Scott Roberts as Sparky, Elijah Munck as Jinx and Josiah Dominguez as Smudge.
“They all fit their roles perfectly,” Berkompas said. “All four have fabulous voices and are fabulous actors. They all have to be fabulous performers and singers – you can’t have one without the other.”
The show’s music director and bandleader is Rick Heckman, who is also the onstage pianist along with Richard Guzman (upright bass) and David Page (percussion).
Behind the scenes are choreographers Hannah Simmons and Berkompas, set designer Paul Eggington, costume designer Lia Hansen and lighting designer Garrett Spady. Jordan Ward is both company manager and stage manager and Lily Hinojosa is manager of the Lyceum Theatre at Vanguard University.
Despite the show’s seeming campiness, Berkompas insists that “nothing is going to be campy about the way I want to direct this show.”
ACTC’s production “will be what audiences are looking for, but also some original elements.” While her version “won’t be a rubber stamp production of what audiences have seen in the past, I’m certainly going to honor what the playwrights intended.”
Berkompas said the takeaway of the show “is that people are going to fall in love with these four guys and rediscover the style of quartet singing and ballads and that style and that era.”
“It was such a different time, a time we will never go back to – that generation where people really tried to see the best in others. Art reflected not maybe what life is, but what they would love life to be.”
“It was an age of innocence, especially with these four guys.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
Lyceum Theatre, Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
May 26 - June 18, 2023
(714) 619-6424, www.americancoasttheater.com