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American Dreamers 

by Michael Bowen

Forever Plaid (through April 24 at CenterStage) offers the disappointments of plotlessness and off-key comedy and the pleasures of '50s-style four-part harmony and comforting nostalgia. Written by Stuart Ross in 1990, this musical is just about perfect for dinner theater: no plot, small cast, not very demanding in terms of set or costumes, lots of comedy and fun, numerous chances to show off your musical chops.

For a nostalgia-minded audience -- and the opening-weekend spectators at the performance I attended were predominately in their 50s and 60s -- the story of the guy-quartet returning to earth (they'd been killed, back in '64, on their way to their first real gig) provides a new twist on familiar songs and memories. The Four Plaids return to earth, tell a few jokes, put on a concert for us and leave.

The audience gets to participate, too. There are calls for volunteers -- a woman from my table, for example, got to put on a funny hat and hold up a palm tree during a calypso number. Audiences love to see one of their own shimmy and shake up onstage -- just as they do at a concert. Which is the problem: What difference is there between Forever Plaid and a golden oldies concert with scripted-but-supposedly-improvised patter between songs? It's worth doing, certainly, and I had a (mostly) good time. But is it musical theater of the kind that gets us out of ourselves? Forever Plaid limits itself to feel-good feelings. That's because the quartet up onstage are just stick figures. One's inspiring, another's awkward; there's Mr. Misfit and then there's Mr. Flamboyant. One has asthma, another has nosebleeds; one yearns for the limelight, another just loves show tunes (and we all know what that was code for in the '50s -- and pretty much ever since).

With few exceptions, the musical numbers appear in random order. (There are running gags about those nosebleeds and life after death that do create a slender narrative framework.) In a staged collection of jukebox tunes like this one, it all comes down to the singing.

The CenterStage quartet responds pretty well to the challenge. The moments when they're supposed to wow us with their harmonic teamwork -- the opening and reprises of "Three Coins in the Fountain" and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" are pleasant but not stirring. The most impressive harmonizing arrived during the Four Lads' "No, not much": Baby, if you ever go, could I take it? Maybe so. / Oh, but would I like it? No, not much.

Instead, this show features more moments of individual achievement, with Darin Jones hitting an impressive final note to conclude Johnnie Ray's "Cry," and Max Kumangai-McGee sashaying and chattering in rapid-fire Spanish during "Perfidia."

Director Kathie Doyle-Lipe uses inventive choreography to increase the silliness quotient. There's some nifty use of toilet plungers (they're among plumbers' supplies, remember) during "Crazy 'bout Ya, Baby." Doyle-Lipe has also inserted plenty of '50s dance moves: cool-cat finger-snaps with elbows held in close, 360 twirls, exaggerated leans with jack-in-the-box heads popping into view.

She gets hilarious comedy from Greg Pschirrer, who loves his collection of singles just a bit too much and who adds some spoon-and-ketchup-bottle accents to "Chain Gang." The comic bits between songs are hit and miss. Kumangai-McGee's Perry Como tribute involving a golden cardigan sweater falls flat. Russell Seaton's final pep talk to his fellow Plaids isn't peppy enough. There's a fine line between adeptly pretending to be nervous and unsure of oneself (that's acting, and Jones achieves it) and simply appearing anxious (which isn't, and is a trap Seaton sometimes falls into).

But the four performers reach a comic crescendo during a frantic three-minute spoof of the old Ed Sullivan Show. Those who recall Topo Gigio and Jose Jimenez will enjoy it most, but a rapid-fire spoof of a variety show isn't going to seem unfamiliar to the generation of American Idol. These four guys do wonders with split-second timing as they appear as jugglers, opera singers and the Marx Brothers -- especially when you consider the miniscule backstage area they're forced to work with.

But why the rush to run the 90-minute show without an intermission? There were natural breaking points along about "Chain Gang" and "Matilda, Matilda"; several folks made bathroom runs in the darkness; and it's not as if there's any narrative coherence that compels us to remain in our seats without a break.

Still, for the big moments, Jason and Swan Laws have created some freaky lighting effects for the Plaids' cosmic voyaging from death to life and back again, and they even make the set's gold lam & eacute; curtains glow in different colors.

CenterStage has reduced its prices and revised its dinner theater menu: Now $35 gets you salad, roll and beverage (along with the show, of course) and one of six (instead of just three) entree selections: prime rib, salmon, chicken, pasta, veggie plate or '50s comfort food. Appetizers, side dishes and wine cost extra.

After the show, the four singers cluster near the CenterStage exit to meet and greet exiting playgoers -- a technique that always makes me feel like I'm going through the reception line at my third cousin's neighbor's wedding. Or like meeting the house musicians after a concert.

Forever Plaid offers an A & amp;W Root Beer soundtrack, and this CenterStage production provides aural pleasure the same way a bacon cheeseburger combines comfort food with nutrition.

Publication date: 03/24/05

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