“I Only Have Eyes for You.” “In the Still of the Night.” “Three Coins in the Fountain.” If these phrases mean nothing to you, you’re probably too young to savor the full kitsch, the maximum doo-wop sentimentality of Forever Plaid, the musical love letter to ’50s harmony groups currently showcased by the Jewel Theatre Company.
American pop music during the mid ’50s was veneered with whiteness. White tuxedos. White shoes. White guys, clean-cut and straight-arrow, crooning sanitized lyrics about young love, shoo wop shoo wop. All of it choreographed to a fine edge by exaggerated hand gestures, tidy synchronized knee bends, and the swivel of tuxedoed bodies.
In Forever Plaid, we can thrill to 90 minutes of head-bobbin’ melodies that once filled prom halls, bar mitzvahs, anniversary parties, and lounges across pre-MAGA America. The Five Satins, the Four Aces, the Kingston Trio, Dion and the Belmonts, the Four Lads. Groups like this regularly appeared—the really good ones—on The Ed Sullivan Show (more on that in a minute) in that magic moment right before the Beatles changed the face of popular music forever.
The show revolves around a high-school singing quartet who dream of making it big in their plaid cummerbunds and bow ties. We meet the squeaky clean guys right after their demise in a car crash on the way to an important gig. (In the Jewel production, the four singing actors are performed by: Brent Schindele as Frankie, Christopher Reber as Sparky, Noel Anthony as tenor Jinx, and Nathaniel Rothrock as Smudge, the bass.) They are a bit dazed and confused at first as to their existential status, but when they realize that they’re on a stage with microphones—plus a piano and bass—they decide, “Why not?” And before you can say “Heart and Soul,” the music begins.
After they’ve puttered around onstage, and we’ve been filled in a bit on their backstory of dashed dreams, it’s something of a shock when the incredible singing begins. A wow moment. Let me stop here and say that a big part of the fun and the overall musical mood is conjured by Christopher Charman on bass and the suavely confident Josiah Stocker on piano. The minimalist staging works perfectly as a club setting, where the voices, nostalgia, and light design by Tim Reeve do all of the work. The musical revue was written in 1989 by Stuart Ross and is now thrilling crowds-of-a-certain-age all over the world. In Forever Plaid, nostalgia and good-natured mockery join forces to power a show about singers who idolized the Four Freshmen. You can read this toe-tapping musical revue as either a fun dive into four-part harmonies tighter than J-Lo’s leggings, or as a delicious spoof of the excruciating sincerity and mock-innocence of an era that will never come again. Which of those attitudes you favor may depend on your own memories of that era—or lack thereof.
Either way, those minutes romp nicely along, with some exceptional moments of diminished 7ths and high-rise falsettos. Fasten your seat belts for Noel Anthony’s unforgettable rendition of “Cry.” Seriously, these guys put on a polished act, spinning, grooving, and hamming their way through a dozen-and-a-half well-honed tunes almost everyone in last week’s audience could sing by heart.
There’s a nod to the buttoned-down, laid-back world of Perry Como, whose cardigan is given special attention, along with pitch perfect renditions of Como’s big hits “Catch a Falling Star” and “Papa Loves Mambo.” There’s even a whirlwind summary of the narrow bandwidth of The Ed Sullivan Show vaudeville acts that bring that kinder, gentler era back, momentarily, from the dead. Yes, children, it was an era where spinning plates on the end of long sticks was considered entertainment. All while “Lady of Spain” was played—without irony—on an accordion!
The girandola was busy casting bits of nostalgia across the theater as this brisk tour through non-adventurous music brought our audience to its feet. Your audience too, I bet. It’s that kind of a holiday-season show.
“Forever Plaid,” directed and choreographed by Lee Ann Payne; music directed by Josiah Stocker. A Jewel Theatre Company production. Colligan Theater, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz through Dec. 11. jeweltheatre.net.