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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Plaid’ Makes a Frothy, Sweet Return

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Early in “Forever Plaid,” one of the guys announces that they are about to make “the biggest comeback since Lazarus.”

At the Pasadena Playhouse, where this delightful send-up of ‘50s feel-good harmony groups like the Four Lads, Four Freshmen or Four Aces opened Sunday, you can read all sorts of meanings into that. The Playhouse was home to the cast-of-thousands premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s “Lazarus Laughed” back in the ‘30s. And its current artistic director is Paul Lazarus who, far from entertaining a comeback, is in his first year on the job.

This incarnation of the show, written, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross, is not a come back but a come up --all 135 miles up from San Diego where “Forever Plaid” was a runaway hit at the Old Globe Theatre this summer, and where it returns Nov. 1.

Since the truth must out, it’s the characters in the show who are making that “biggest since Lazarus” comeback. They were killed instantly, and in unison, in 1964, when a bus filled with teen-agers headed for a Beatles concert broadsided their Mercury outside Harrisburg, Pa. The guys had been on their way to pick up brand new plaid tuxedo jackets.

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None of the kids were hurt, but those harmony singers--Jinx (Stan Chandler), Smudge (David Engel), Sparky (Larry Raben) and Frankie (Guy Stroman)--went straight to heaven, probably in the middle of a good tight chord.

The middle of a good tight chord is where they’d always thought heaven to be. Now they’ve slipped through a hole in the ozone layer to give one more concert, and while they’re enormously surprised to discover it’s 1991, it makes no difference to their singing or their music. For them it’s 1964, now and forever. Plaid.

These sweet, awkward, slightly goofy guys prove it to us in the course of the next ultra-hummable, ultra-recognizable 28 songs, that include such certifiably entrenched oldies as “Catch a Falling Star,” “Three Coins in a Fountain,” “Matilda” (in a hilarious, banana-tree spoof of calypso), “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” (the song they were rehearsing when they were killed) and even “Lady of Spain.”

One thing they don’t lack is belief in what they do. When a reviewer wrote that they were “to contemporary music what Formica is to marble,” they chose to take it as a compliment. “The Beatles,” they assure us, “paved the way for us. . . .”)

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Unaccustomed to state-of-the-art miking, they revert to long-handle toilet plungers for their version of “Crazy ‘Bout Ya, Baby.” It’s what they rehearsed with in the stockroom of the plumbing supply. All of them, you see, held down regular day jobs--in dental supplies, better dresses, bathroom fixtures and auto parts.

For Jinx, the shy one of the lot, the high register exertions of “No, Not Much” bring on one of his frequent nose-bleeds. (“I didn’t know he could still bleed,” says his half-brother Sparky.)

If Jinx is the most bashful, Sparky is the most starry-eyed. He just loves this group and this music and didn’t hesitate to swipe Perry Como’s carburetor when he came through town if it meant getting him ringside at their concert.

Smudge may not know his left from his right, but he can put real muscle into “Sixteen Tons” (to the rugged accompaniment of a fork tapping on a ketchup bottle). And Frankie? Well, they needed a fourth and Frankie was it.

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But don’t be fooled. All this quaint, squeaky-clean silliness is interspersed with highly skilled harmonizing to the accompaniment of Steven Freeman at the piano and an unidentified straggler on bass (“That’s Uncle Chester,” volunteers one of the fellas. “He’s not really my Uncle. Mom just had him hanging about the house since Dad went away to Korea. . . . ")

It’s that kind of giddiness, topped by a keenly-observed, hyperkinetic spoof of the Ed Sullivan Show that will shake up all who remember it and gives Neil Peter Jampolis’ set and Jane Reisman’s lights a chance to strut their stuff.

The “finale” that follows, is a trifle anticlimactic, but nobody said these guys know how to quit when they’re ahead. They do know how to have a frothy, happy, nostalgic, tender, untaxing, talented time. And in case they ever escape back to earth again, they want you to know they also do birthdays, weddings, proms, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, supermarket openings and church meetings.

* “Forever Plaid,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 27. $31.50; (818) 356-PLAY, (213) 480-3232. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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‘Forever Plaid’

Stan Chandler: Jinx

David Engel: Smudge

Larry Raben: Sparky

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Guy Stroman: Francis

A Pasadena Playhouse presentation, in association with Theatre Corporation of America, by special arrangement with Gene Wolsk, Steven Rubin and the Old Globe Theatre of San Diego. Written, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross. Sets Neil Peter Jampolis. Lights Jane Reisman. Costumes Debra Stein. Sound Tony Tait. Musical director/piano Steven Freeman. Production stage manager Peter Van Dyke. Stage manager Evan Ensign.


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