Harken back to a simpler time of bright, Pepsodent smiles, Sunday nights with “Uncle Ed” and the cheery sounds of doo-wop reigning on national airwaves with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Forever Plaid,” an unapologetically escapist musical that opened on Saturday, Sept. 3.
The production is a total charmer that brims with the unbridled optimism of post-war America from first note to final crescendo. It opened to a packed house who were thoroughly charmed.
This is the second musical of the season beautifully helmed by ISF resident director Victoria Bussert and choreographer Gregory Daniels, who dusts off this 1990s chestnut and brings out a genuine shine on a love letter to a bygone musical era.
Bussert’s secret weapon is casting. She brings together four young, plucky energetic performers as The Plaids: Andrew Kotzen (Sparky), Mack Shirilla (Frankie), Mickey Ryan (Jinx) and James Penca (Smudge). Most of the performers were born around the time the show was created by Stuart Ross in 1993, so they’re entirely age-appropriate. (Many productions cast performers who are in their 30s.)
These guys beam with genuine youthful enthusiasm and sincerity throughout as they tackle some pretty difficult musical arrangements, expertly handled by the on-stage band, associate music director and pianist Peter Van Reesema, drummer Todd Chavez and bassist Shayla Lewis.
The show is about a four-part singing group whose lives are cut short in a car crash with a bus of Catholic school girls who are on their way to see the Beatles debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964. Suspended in a time warp because their desire to sing was so strong, they get the chance to make a heavenly comeback and sing the songs they never got to in life.
The show itself starts a bit slow as the guys sort out just what happened to them and why they’re back on Earth. Then they launch into what starts out as a off-Vegas strip lounge show. But soon it progresses as the characters begin to blossom from the Audio Visual Club nerds they were in life into a real talented bunch of crooners.
They tackle every musical touchstone of the era from the pure doo-wop songs such as “Three Coins in the Fountain” to a rendition of “Pefidia,” in which Sparky (Kotzen) uses his best, worst Spanish accent and shows a real comic flair.
Jinx (Ryan) the shyest of the group, hits his stride with “Cry” and belts out the end with his clear tenor voice.
For Penca, as Smudge, the glasses-wearing left-handed “nerd,” it’s during “Rags to Riches” that he has his breakthrough, throwing his glasses to the wind in real teen-idol fashion. (He also does a great Ed Sullivan impression.)
Shirilla as Frankie has more fun than should be allowed on “Matilda,” but he finds his true big moment in a monologue near the end where he expresses the love he and the Plaids feel for singing together.
They do it all: The Plaids go calypso with “Day-O,” offer a loving tribute to crooner Perry Como and set the stage reeling with a high-speed 3 minute, 11-second trip through “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Their stage is an expanded spiffy hotel lounge-show stage with bright pops of color, designed by Jeff Herrmann. Sound designer David Gotwald pulls off a great balance between band, hand-held and lavalier microphones.
You don’t need to have seen Sullivan’s weekly variety show to appreciate the wackiness that ensues. If you have, it adds an extra layer of fun.
The audience included a number of people who were old enough to remember the original songs, and who occasionally sighed when a song would start. But many weren’t born yet and were discovering it for perhaps the first time.
No matter. You don’t need to know who Sullivan was, or that Texaco had snappy, full-service gas jockeys back in the day to appreciate the musical talent on stage. Even if you’re too young to remember the songs, you’ll get swept up in the Plaids’ enthusiasm.
Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s “Forever Plaid”
7 p.m. Sunday (Family Night) sold out. Tickets are available 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 6-25, ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. $27-$45 general, $20 students with ID any night (hillside). 336-9221, IdahoShakespeare.org.