By Kristin Forbis
While I do love theatre, I’ll admit I had not heard of Forever Plaid before seeing it on the posters here in northeastern Utah for Vernal Theatre: LIVE’s upcoming productions. I quickly learned a few things through the grapevine. One, it would be directed by David Gale, well known locally as a talented, show-stealing funny-man with some great pipes. Two, the cast would include only four men and impressive vocals. Musical talent was of the highest priority. I was curious enough to watch for the cast list the day it was posted in December, noting one newcomer to the local theatre scene (Justin Benson as Franky) and recognizing the three others (Joel Benedicto as Jinx, Daniel Jackson as Sparky, and Jon Stearmer as Smudge), having seen their talent first hand in various local productions. I was confident I was in store for a good show. Because I was invited to write this review, I was able to attend the production’s family night on Thursday, February 15th. To say that my expectation of seeing a good show was realized is an understatement. Let me be clear: the production of Forever Plaid at Vernal Theatre: LIVE has managed to execute something I have rarely experienced; a trifecta of charming humor, emotional acting, and extraordinary musical talent.
So just what is Forever Plaid? It is the story of four harmonious pals who dream of fame among the clean-cut quartets popular in their day, known for their tight harmonies and matching tuxedos. Chums Franky, Jinx, Sparky, and Smudge are on their way to their first big gig when their lives and musical dreams are snuffed out by a school bus full of Catholic schoolgirls, hitting them broadside and killing them instantly. (Don’t worry, the girls and their nun chaperones were uninjured.) The show begins as the PLAIDS, by some miracle of the cosmos, are allowed to visit present day and perform (for you, the audience) the show they never had the chance to in life. Forever Plaid was written and originally directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross. It was first performed in New York City in 1989 and is now performed internationally.
Because I attended on family night (when the families of the cast and crew are invited for a performance on the Eve of opening night), the audience had a greater ratio of young kids than usual. I enjoyed the company of my husband David as well as my cousin, 8-year-old Riley Curtis, during the show. Spoiler alert: Riley and seemingly every other child enjoyed the show with some having a hard time keeping their delight to themselves. In the moments before the lights went down I took in the simple set. David, who was also unfamiliar with the show, noted it was much plainer than we were used to seeing. The house lights dimmed and immediately an effect, utilizing smoke, lighting, a projector, and the sound system, quite literally set the mood for the production, no fancy set pieces required.
As they do for almost the duration of the show, the PLAIDS enter singing. Within just minutes, the personality of each character makes a debut and the energetic humor is rolling. Riley and I equally enjoyed as Sparky (Jackson) lisps his excitement of being back on earth until the guys remind him to take out his retainer, which disgustingly and hilariously gets passed around. From there, the gimmicks and entertaining interactions continue including and perhaps especially during the group’s quintessential coordinated dancing, choreographed by Assistant Director Danni Harrison.
The show features 29 songs, dominated by smooth quartet harmonies. Picking and choosing a few of my favorite soloist moments, however, would have to include Jackson’s smooth delivery of “Perfidia”, Benson’s broad smile and crooning in “Chain Gang”, Benedicto’s soulful performance of “Cry”, and Stearmer’s let-loose vocal in “Rags to Riches” (complete with glasses toss and undoing of the bow tie). The highlight of the show for me was the sequence of back-to-back numbers, “Lady of Spain” and “Scotland the Brave.” All ages loved the recounting of family TV hour in “Lady of Spain” which culminates in a mad circus rendition of The Ed Sullivan Show using props and all the show’s iconic characters in three minutes. Let’s just say nearly every sequence, including Benson as the operatic Viking woman complete with Brunnhilde helmet and braids, left the audience in tears and Riley and I elbowing each other in delight. Contrast that image with the follow-up song “Scotland the Brave” which the boys smoothly and quickly transition to a solemn almost sacred mood of gorgeous harmonies. One moment I literally laughed till I cried and the next I felt the longing to cry for the Scottish moorland and “how the pipes are calling.” I would call that some masterful theatre.
Since this review can’t go on forever, I have to step away from the moments I loved and offer several acknowledgments. No doubt the PLAIDS sound good but they share the stage with two people who are key to their musical success, piano player Karilynne Pearson (Nashelle Jackson on rotating nights) and bass player McKenzi Bigler. PLAID member Jackson also provides instrumentals in the show on the melodica and piano. Their efforts, combined with the fine work of sound technician Jen Curtis and her assistant Kenzy Anderson, make for a night of beautiful tonality, easy on the ears and free from hot mics or otherwise distracting possibilities.
Forever Plaid is worth the investment of your time and entertainment dollars. If you’ve yet to see a show at Vernal Theatre: LIVE, be advised that street parking is limited but parking is available in the back and on the west side of South Vernal Avenue. The theatre served as Vernal’s downtown cinema from 1947 to 2014. Vernal Theatre: LIVE opened its doors for community theatre in 2016 after fundraising and renovating the building. It maintains the old theatre’s charm and seats an audience of 250 guests for a well-balanced community theatre experience.
Don’t miss your chance to experience Forever Plaid at Vernal Theatre: LIVE. Simply put: it’s the 1950’s nostalgia drip you never knew you needed.
Vernal Theatre: LIVE presents Forever PLAID by Stuart Ross
Vernal Theatre, 40 East Main Street, Vernal, UT 84078
February 16-17, 19, 22-24 7:00 PM
Vernal Theatre Facebook Page
Forever PLAID’s Facebook Event