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By Carolyn Hayes
Posted: Nov. 25, 2012 at 8:50 p.m.; updated Nov. 26, 2012 at 2:36 p.m.
Ushering in the holiday season, The Encore Musical Theatre Company once again turns to the celestial sphere, following its 2011 production of "Forever Plaid" with the holiday-edition sequel, "Plaid Tidings" (by Stuart Ross; original "Forever Plaid" arrangements by James Raitt; current arrangements by Raitt, Brad Ellis, Raymond Berg, and David Snyder). Presented with a jumbled grab bag of a retread-revue, director/choreographer Barbara F. Cullen and company create a merrily comical excursion in which the show's glut of musical achievements far outstrips its moderate Christmas mirth.
This time around, a droll voiceover sketches a brief history of the dearly departed semiprofessional singing group Forever Plaid (d. 1964) and their original posthumous showcase; next, the four Plaids retake the stage in bodily form, none the wiser as to the purpose of their return visit from the beyond. In fact, nearly the entire first act is concerned with the boys ruminating on their mission and acting out their best guesses in song – including a detailed, rollicking recap of the original show's set list.
The production design keeps mum with respect to identifying clues, with Leo Babcock's pale blue backdrops and integrated lighting providing an eager canvas for Daniel Walker's ever shifting, dramatically fading, popping lounge-light wonderland. But finally, with a little help from a fellow ex-crooner and an unseen force that keeps hijacking the numbers in repeated Christmas-carol takeovers, the characters discover their holiday purpose and catch up to the patient viewers, who, after all, have seen the show's title and/or a calendar.
That inherent Christmas promise is delivered upon after intermission: Costumer Sharon Larkey Urick ditches plaid tuxedo jackets for matching Perry Como–style cardigan sweaters, and the guys go about creating the Christmas special they had always dreamed about, but never planned. The result is a further prolongation of the desperate what-now? scrambling that makes the barely prepared Plaids lovable to begin with, but here winds up feeling like a lot of monkeying around. Darling soft shoe routines and hand bell pranks benefit from the full commitment of a tireless cast (and a mountain of junk-box treasures curated by properties master Thalia Schramm), but there's no saving a grotesquely anachronistic hip hop–inspired number, especially when that's time taken away from the traditional sounds for which the fellows are known. Cullen and company do the best work they can with frenetic snippets of songs and medley after medley, but the production's finest moments come when the script picks a concept and sees it through – as in the cheeky sing-along calypso piece that closes the first act.
Together, the Plaids are a collection of like-minded timid, nerdy guys, but the cast takes pains to create four distinct versions of the type. As the smirking joker Sparky, Sebastian Gerstner spreads happy puppy energy that ably counters the others' various neuroses. Rusty Mewha's Smudge has both beastly intelligence and a self-conscious streak, combining into a kind of palpitating Poindexter. As for Jinx the bleeder, Kevin Rose winningly plays to extremes, flying from abject panic to emphatic command. Self-styled heartthrob Frankie is most revealing in a solo moment, for which Brian Thibault comes alive in a hilarious outburst of spiteful release.
Yet for all the hijinks and recycled bits, the production's bread and butter is its music, and music director/conductor Tyler Driskill offers a payload of surging 1950s-style harmonies bound to impress. Sound designer Chuck Colby uses hand-held microphones to ensure the sounds are crisp and easy, with levels kept in delicate balance. Solo and backup voices are solid, especially Rose's dulcet skyward tenor, but it's the tight accord of the four-part blasts that will keep audiences coming back for more. Here, the many mashed-up numbers shift the difficulty into high gear, and Driskill and cast deliver ecstatic heights of modulation that supplement the classic reverberation. In both guy-group classics and Christmas standbys, the quartet's sound is first rate.
For viewers considering prospective entertainment this holiday, the "Plaid Tidings" conversation begins and ends with, "Do you like singing?" Dance moves, comic patter, and a bit of Christmas magic are all accounted for in this musical whirlwind, but the wall-to-wall songs provide the show's real spirit.
While there's a lot of fun and a decent amount of holiday cheer to be had in this production, heaven-sent harmony is the sustaining force that keeps these Plaids a favorite in any season.
SHOW DETAILS: "Plaid Tidings" continues at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter, Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 23. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Tickets: $26-$32. For information: 734-268-6200 or www.theencoretheatre.org.
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