Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Stuart Ross hit on a winning formula for merging musical revue with musical theater. His popular Forever Plaid in essence is a concert by a 1950s-style guy group; however, he introduces potential for character development in its unique concept: the singing group Forever Plaid, killed in a bus collision just as it was reaching its prime, is allowed to perform its first — and last — full show on Earth by virtue of some heavenly reprieve. At The Encore Musical Theatre, director Barb Cullen uses a deft touch with both influences to deliver an entertaining piece of musical theater that’s a spectacular revue in its own right.

The primary reason for this show to exist is to bask in its many songs, and the numbers, led by music director Brian Buckner, are simply a treat. The performers form an outstanding quartet that sparkles in gentle four-part harmony; the voices blend so completely, it’s actually a surprise to hear them sing as individuals. But Ross ensures that the characters can indeed be distinct: Sebastian Gerstner brings jittery nervousness to his youthful Sparky, carried through to his singing in enthusiastic showmanship; in contrast, the iconic nerd-glasses visage befits earnest Smudge, and Phill Harmer’s astounding bass resonates with texture. The music, arranged by James Raitt, applies the guy-group sound to unexpected melodies, but also covers plenty of ground with regard to the standards. Joined by stoic bassist Billy Satterwhite, Buckner provides live piano accompaniment and occasional hammy facial expressions that round out the tableau. Deceptively complex sound design by Jess Preville frequently backs off from handheld microphone input, but doesn’t hesitate to throw in an audio effect from time to time; the result is dually additive and complementary to the musical accomplishment on display.

Although the quirky premise grants full permission to be light and untethered, Cullen sticks with the concept to coax out moments of exceptional humor and sweet gravitas. The metaphysical details of the Plaids’ return are kept vague, but it’s accepted that they are nearly half a century out of practice with regard to their choreography (also by Cullen), which gives rise to inventive comedy work, especially in the case of one possibly dyslexic member. Physical ailments are picked up between numbers and dropped when they would distract; in particular, Leo Daignault as Jinx plays out an epic relationship with his nosebleeds that the actor makes plainly funny on top of its inherent funny-grossness. The comic thread is retained throughout, but never threatens to overshadow the pure impressiveness of these performances — it’s a skillful balance. Yet as grateful as the men are for the opportunity, wistful regret creeps in about the finality of the circumstances. Steve DeBruyne’s Frankie deserves special mention in this regard, using a scant few telling moments to elaborately deepen a generally professional and staid character. The here-and-now setting also allows the performers to liberally engage with the audience; women of the front row are particular targets of their respectful adulation.

The production is also well served visually, with a set design by committee that charmingly recalls mid-century supper clubs. Costumes coordinated by Colleen Meyer slowly roll out the signature plaid to great effect, and properties by Jennifer Colby are impressively inventive and far-ranging. Even so, it’s Steven V. Rice’s dynamic lighting design that pays off the most with respect to the premise: the subtle evolution from four guys from parts unknown, exploring the Encore’s rough-edged playing space, to a singing group performing together in concert is a development worth watching for.

At a solidly constructed and polished ninety minutes, this production doesn’t falter with regard to its pacing, its exact comic bits, or its splendid sounds. The music enough would be cause for celebration, but the added character work and audience contact elevate the show to an even more inviting and charming experience. At its core, this Forever Plaid asks the viewer only to love these boys, and Cullen and company have worked incredibly hard to make this incredibly easy.


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