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It happens to every Christmas fanatic, great and small — from time to time, the repetition of those classic stories and songs wears on us. Forever Plaid creator Stuart Ross obviously gets it, and his holiday follow-up, Plaid Tidings, offers a refreshing middle ground: just the right combination of spiced-up musical innovation, holiday and otherwise, mingling with familiar fireside comfort. Enjoyable theater and enjoyable holiday show don't always go hand in hand, but this spirited Gem Theatre production, directed by Mark Martino, has a handle on both.

Viewers like me who haven't seen the original are helpfully caught up by introductory narration and thickly spread exposition by the guys. The mythology behind Forever Plaid holds that the semi-professional singing quartet of the same name, tragically killed in a 1964 auto accident, is granted one reprieve to perform a final show on Earth — which, let's face it, doesn't exactly leave room for a sequel. Accordingly, here the Plaid lads are deposited at the theater with little fanfare and less understanding of their journey's purpose, but they decide to just start singing until they stumble upon and accomplish their true mission. Any viewer sharp enough to note the play title knows where this is leading, but although the characters take most of the first act to catch up, there's enough going on to extend the viewer's patience. More importantly, the group's energetic, joyous take on the Christmas theme is well worth the wait.

With purposefully static characters, existing at least figuratively in limbo, the strength of the production is intimately tied with the strength of its performers, and this cast excels both individually and as a group. Scott Barnhardt's Jinx has angelic timidity, Kevin Vortmann's Smudge boasts a squinty appeal, and Bradley Beahen's asthmatic Frankie has uncanny footwork. Understudy Eric Gutman demonstrates practically seamless entry into the ensemble, his nervously earnest Smudge standing in for regular Jared Gertner at the performance I attended. Together, the congenial four give off an aching wholesomeness, which is well defused by their inoffensive, dweeby humor and childlike marvel at revisiting their favorite holiday.

The numbers stretch across a surprising variety of musical styles of the '50s and '60s, with quite a few partial songs and others packed full of quick references to other tunes and cultural touchstones. Musical director Harvey Kahl and an impassive bassist provide excellent accompaniment. Everything from the group's doo-wop roots to an audience-singalong calypso number to classic Perry Como to a jam-packed homage to The Ed Sullivan Show is here, with frenetic energy carefully guided by Martino's cheeky choreography. Its lyrics shying away from overt religious content, the show still touches on a huge number of Christmas carols, delicately folded in with a helping of friendly banter and catchy numbers fit for any season; the musically challenging pieces are made to look easy. David Esler's scenic design brings some happy holiday magic, while Eric W. Maher's lights and a hearty thunderclap effect provide foreboding reminders of the fleeting nature of the entertainment.

The show's two hours pass at breakneck speed, its zig-zagging changes in tone made bearable by the clever script and phenomenal attention to pacing. Whereas tradition-heavy standard Christmas entertainment sometimes feels like the equivalent of consuming an entire gingerbread house, Plaid Tidings is more like a selection from a giant buffet, with a generous sip of eggnog after every few bites. Overwrought simile aside, the production works as either supplement or alternative to the same old same old, bringing increasing seasonal affection into what is first and foremost an awfully fun experience.


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