Austin Theatre Project's staging of the popular musical hits all the right notes
Reviewed by Elissa Russell, Fri., Aug. 28, 2015
"On February 9th, 1964, a semiprofessional harmony group was on its way to its first big gig when they were slammed broadside by a school bus ... and killed instantly." A somewhat depressing beginning to a lighthearted musical revue, this voiceover monologue inserts the audience into the world of Forever Plaid, or, more aptly, the afterworld. The members of the quartet called the Plaids confusedly take the stage, unsure of time or place, their last memories from the emergency room moments before their deaths. The fog begins to lift as the Plaids decide to seize the opportunity that was snatched from them in life: play their first real concert.
For this group of Plaids, the concert venue happens to be Austin's new Ground Floor Theatre, with staging courtesy of Austin Theatre Project co-founder Barbara Schuler and musical direction by ATP Artistic Director David Blackburn. The metatheatricality of the show is largely what makes it so fun, with the audience doubling as the fans at the group's big gig. Since the Plaids never performed when they were alive, they have their fair share of kinks to work out in their set, and the singing and choreography intentionally get sharper as the show moves along. The quartet consists of Frankie, its leader (Daniel Cline); Jinx (Travis Martin), whose shyness makes him prone to nosebleeds; Sparky (Scott Garrett Graham), whose fun and quirky personality matches his name; and Smudge (Matt Gauck), who blossoms into a confident and capable performer by show's end.
Integral to a musical about a group of harmony singers is, well, a solid group of harmony singers. Fortunately but not surprisingly, ATP is able to provide. The quartet's voices complement one another splendidly, crooning one Fifties standard after another: "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Perfidia," "Catch a Falling Star," and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," to name a few highlights. It is important to note that Forever Plaid, while it has certain elements of a plot, is not much of a musical in the narrative sense. Though we get certain tidbits and backstories from the characters, no real emotional investments are made in them. That's no fault of the performers, however, and in some ways a plotless show presents more of a challenge in keeping the audience engaged. On this front, the foursome absolutely succeeds, managing to keep the energy high with each number – an especially difficult task considering that many of the songs are slower ballads. The faster numbers are where the performers excel, though, combining their own charisma, comic props, and Cathie Sheridan's fun and period-appropriate choreography to ensure a good time.
One can't help but feel good when the Plaids sport their full-blown plaid suits (lovely costuming by Veronica Prior) at the end of the show, as they give the rendition of "Splendored Thing" that they never gave in life. ATP's Forever Plaid is quality entertainment that hits all the right notes.
Forever PlaidGround Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale
Through Aug. 29
Running time: 2 hr.