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‘Plaid’ graduates to a new pinnacle: high school stages

Times Staff Writer

“Doo-wah, doo-wah, DOO-WAH!” The voices of 19 teenagers of varying ages, sizes and shapes fill the Buckley School gymnasium theater in Sherman Oaks, blending like a 1950s Teen Angel dream, rising in a crescendo of pitch-perfect multiples of four-part harmony.

Born long after the “Heart and Soul” generation, the young performers, stretching in chorus line fashion across a small proscenium stage, are finding a euphoric high in singing pop hits of the past.

The sandy-haired, smiling, amiably disheveled reason is seated in front of them: Stuart Ross, creator of “Forever Plaid,” the phenomenally successful musical about a 1950s-'60s tight-harmony quartet’s return from the dead for the one big gig they missed in life.

Ross, commuting from New York, is working with Buckley’s students, dance director Laura Bamford, choral director John Hendricks, pianist Chris Hardin and theater director Neil Nash -- a former “Plaid” himself -- to craft the template for an expanded version of his show for high school use. For this version, “Plaid’s” original male quartet becomes a co-ed student glee club with a Perry Como-Rosemary Clooney “sing-off.”

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At this day’s rehearsal, Ross is round-eyed with surprise when 13-year-old Zach Spound belts out “Cry,” and Danielle Levine, 17, pulls off one of Ross’ riskiest innovations--a female take on the bass lead vocal in “Sixteen Tons.” When Levine’s big, melodic low notes fill the room, ending on a wickedly spot-on operatic finish, “I thought I was going to pass out,” Ross says. “I knew it would work if a girl sang it.”

If successful -- public performances will premiere at the school Thursday through Nov. 16 -- Ross’ new “Sounds of Plaid” will join the long roster of student versions of Broadway shows that are made available to high schools across the country, from “Annie” to “Les Miserables,” by New York-based dramatic licensing agency Music Theatre International.

The agency, which also tailors shows for its “Broadway Junior” program for elementary and middle schools, licenses 8,000 to 9,000 high school productions each year. Costs to schools range from $450 per license for lower grades to $1,500 for high schools.

“It’s a very big part of our business,” says agency owner and chairman Freddie Gershon, who suggests that a Broadway show experience for students can be to theater what Little League is to sports.

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Participation, not creating “the next little Bernadette Peters,” he says, is his agency’s goal. “By immersing yourself in the fun of putting on a show, you’re learning to work as a community. You don’t have to be the star. You can be in the chorus, you can paint a backdrop, help get the costumes together or work the lights. Everyone has a job to do, and they’re all pulling for one moment, for one night, to get a bunch of people to rise to their feet at the end of a two-hour program.”

“The premise is that once someone gets into the world of theater, they will get hooked,” Gershon says. “We think of ourselves as farmers dropping little seeds into the ground, and hopefully, there’ll be a harvest. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, these kids are going to be the people who go see regional theater productions.”

Sparking teenagers’ passion for musical theater might seem a quixotic endeavor, given that what they usually listen to is light years from yesteryear’s Hit Parade.

Ross’ experience suggests otherwise. “You have these contemporary kids saying, ‘I want to sing Perry Como, I want to sing “Perfidia.” ’ And when the [girls] did ‘Hey There,’ they just went right into it. It sounds so beautiful,” he says. “It’s been a great, happy surprise.”

The cast members -- some long-limbed and poised on the threshold of adulthood, others round-faced, lingering on the fringes of childhood -- had their own happy surprise.

Two of the original “Plaids,” David Engel and Larry Raben, who are appearing in “Forever Plaid” at Performance Riverside, popped in during the rehearsal, gave the show a thumbs-up and expressed fellowship with a departing, “Bye, guys, break a leg.” The delighted cast saw them off with loud applause.

Music Theatre International’s next Broadway-to-high school-project: The E.L. Doctorow-based epic “Ragtime,” by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.


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