In a carefully crafted program note, Forever Plaid author Stuart Ross vividly describes the 1950s in America as a time of "harmony, innocence, and the sincerity of dreams."
Before the tidal event of the Beatles' arrival and trauma of the Kennedy assassination, "parents and kids listened and danced to the same music," Ross recalls, and network TV variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Ted Mack and Perry Como assured the nation that the path to stardom, or anything else, was open to all. A president (Eisenhower) with a grin spanning ear-to-ear, a spectacular national park and highway system, affordable gasoline, and a transistor radio in every hand, made optimism not only ascendant, but inescapable, for most.
"It was a time when every family worked to fulfill the American dream," Ross unequivocally concludes, and just knew the dream would abundantly pay off. Harmony became a prevailing musical taste and trend.
Forever Plaid, which debuted in 1990, is a responsive and tenderhearted musical homage to this era, and it is presented at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center with often joyful and winning results.
In it, an amateur four-man harmony group from eastern Pennsylvania, calling itself Forever Plaid, is on its way to a gig when broadsided (pardon the expression) by a busload of Catholic school girls en route to the Beatles 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The men are killed instantly, the girls are unharmed, and the Beatles transform popular music and culture forever.
But in a kind of messianic detour, Forever Plaid emerge 50 years later on the FAC main stage, making a post-mortem entrance down the aisles in Nathan Halvorson's nimble, if sometimes uneven, production.
Mortal again for reasons unknown and unquestioned, they seize the opportunity, and with the help of musical director and pianist Jay Hahn, percussionist Richard Clark and bassist Jay McGuffin, pick up where they left off and perform their show. Stage, musicians, audience — all seems ready and waiting as if, like the group itself, heaven-sent.
"Three Coins in the Fountain," the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne chart-buster, suffices as a somewhat dreary and stuporous warm-up number, but from then on the Plaids splendidly carve their way through a hit parade of '50s song favorites. "Perfidia," "Shangri-La" and "Lady of Spain" highlight the 18-song set list, and confirm again the FAC's continuing good fortune in procuring knockout vocal and acting talent.
Each member of the quartet offers a distinctive and polished delivery every step of the way, and tames the slippery, alchemical demands of group harmony with seeming effortlessness. "Shangri-La" feels fresh and anew by the nuanced blending of the four voices, largely in the tenor or light baritone range. Halvorson's choreography complements the songs with just enough period accuracy and tempo to bring the group fully to life.
Ross balances the show with comedic repartee and between-song stories by the Plaids that touch the heart and kindle a genuine longing for their once-upon-a-time era and innocence. Jesse Havea as Smudge recounts in choice detail the spell cast by the jukeboxed 45s in his parents' diner, progressing to the plastic-sealed LPs, opened by thumbnail with sacramental care down the long, narrow sheath. It's a masterly touch by Ross of character shaped by history.
Jason Lythgoe's Sparky, in a chance encounter with his idol Perry Como, leads him to a delicate and moving solo of Como's trademark "Catch a Falling Star," the great singer's gentle, cardiganed paternalism made palpable decades later.
Kevin Pierce as Jinx and Thadd Krueger as Francis are no less captivating; Pierce the best singer, Krueger flawless in setting up the show's last song before the group must make its final bow and relocate back to eternity. The four seem to have truly grown up together, and stride off to the afterlife before curtain with a kind of sublime defiance, like adolescent boys going back to boarding school.
However, eastern Pennsylvanians will never provide the go-to talent pool for Calypso music, though the Plaids give it their best shot on "Day-O" and other Caribbean standards. In the second act Halvorson unleashes a bizarrely screwball parody of The Ed Sullivan Show that dismembers any fond recollection of the show's early broadcasts.
But most confusing, even disconcerting, is a sensual, almost teasing, erotic approach taken to Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" and Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang." These are ballads of unrelieved toil and solidarity at the dark end of human experience, and Halvorson seems to callously side-step that reality.
That aside, Forever Plaid ranks as another in a growing list of outstanding musical productions at the FAC, never descending into clammy sentimentality, or compromising its clear vision of a show with integrity, consistency and fun.
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.