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A heartfelt tribute to a bygone era


Published:September 14, 2010, 12:00 AM

Updated: September 14, 2010, 9:25 AM

For anyone interested in what makes a successful jukebox musical tick, last week’s spate of local openings provides a case study in that very question.

At two esteemed local theaters separated by some seven miles, theatergoers can find examples of what does and doesn’t work in this tried and tested theatrical form that has produced innumerable popular shows, from “Mamma Mia!” to “Rock of Ages.”

One of those productions, “Shout! The Mod Musical,” at MusicalFare Theatre in Snyder, struck me as devoid of a single genuine sentiment.

The other, a consistently charming production of “Forever Plaid,” revealed itself as a heartfelt tribute to a bygone era that was nostalgic only as a consequence of its genuine love for the subject. It opened in the Kavinoky Theatre on Friday night.

“Forever Plaid,” written by Stuart Ross and premiered in 1990, tells the rather outlandish story of a group of four impossibly dorky members of a close-harmony group known as the Plaids. Their tour bus, the story goes, crashed as the group was on its way to see the Beatles’ legendary performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The buttoned-up quartet finds itself in limbo — that is, the Kavinoky Theatre — and treats the audience to one final performance before ascending into the great beyond.

If that sounds like unbelievably thin material for a plot, it quickly becomes a surprisingly fertile narrative ground in which to plant the play’s four manic performers. Each of them delivers a quirky tribute, as the program dedication notes, “to the guys who never went beyond first base, and if they did, they didn’t tell anyone.”

Four more ideal performers would have been harder to assemble than this cast, which features Marc Sacco as asthmatic bandleader Francis; Andy Herr, a gifted physical comedian straight out of Fredonia State College, as the bespectacled Smudge; the bombastic Paschal Frisina III as Jinx; and Niagara University student Nicholas Lama as the mild-mannered Sparky.

The group takes on a tour of songs from the obscure to the beloved, such as “Crazy ’Bout Ya Baby,” “No, Not Much,” “Shangri- La,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Heart and Soul” and an expert rendition of the classic “Undecided.”

The whole affair is peppered with cheesy but endearing wit, hilariously mechanized choreography by director Dale Sandish and a number of entertaining snafus that threaten to bring the whole ethereal performance to a screeching halt.

For me, the highlight of the show was a bit recapping famous acts from “The Ed Sullivan Show” (Topo Gigio and Senor Wences, among many others). It serves both as a tribute to the glory days of American entertainment and a perfectly executed demonstration of vaudevillian physical comedy.

Some moments, such as Herr’s wistful description of his character’s pleasure at running his fingers up the edge of an LP to remove its cellophane wrapper, seem exclusively designed to induce sighs of recognition among audience members, if little else. But these moments are few.

In addition to his phenomenally exaggerated choreography, Sandish deserves accolades for keeping the whole affair running smoothly and in the proper spirit, as do onstage pianist and musical director Mark Vona and bassist Paul Zapalowski.

David King’s set is appropriately dreamlike and works like a charm along with Dixon Reynolds’ costumes, Brian Cavanagh’s expert lighting and Tom Makar’s sound design.