Heavenly voices

Publication Date: Friday Sep 24, 1999

Heavenly voices

The Palo Alto Players have a winner on their hands with lively 'Forever Plaid'

by Michael J. Vaughn

Pity the poor Plaids. They're a great singing group, but they suffer from one terribly debilitating disadvantage: crippling shyness. I suppose I should also mention that they're dead--but from what I saw in their Sunday gig with the Palo Alto Players, death isn't much of an obstacle.

The Four Plaids, a fictional pop-jazz vocal quartet in the style of the Four Aces and Four Lads, were on their way to their first professional gig in 1964 when they were offed by a bus full of parochial schoolgirls. Thirty-five years later, they suddenly find themselves in Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre, sent back to Earth to finally perform that first gig.

In their previous lives, the four crooners--Francis, Sparky, Jinx and Smudge--were prototypical geeks; they met in an audio-video club called the Projector Sector and thereafter spent most of their free time working up their act in the stockroom of a plumbing supply store. As such, they find their sudden return to life not so terrifying as the idea that they actually have to sing in front of people!

Director Ken Sonkin and his four actor/singers make use of this rampant anxiety to create dozens of charming comic moments. Robin Melnick's Al Gore-like Smudge, for instance, has this ongoing problem with the left hand-right hand thing. Mickey Killianey's Francis suffers from sudden attacks of asthma. And Eli Borggraefe's Jinx, poor guy, gets a nosebleed every time he steps on stage.

The thing is, once the Plaids gather their collective gumption and actually sing, they're incredibly good--and that's the whole secret. There's nothing worse than an awkward performer who really is awful. But there's nothing better than four performers who sing like angels, and don't even seem to be aware of their own talent. And then they give you that look of innocent amazement--especially Ian Leonard's childlike Sparky ("Wow! They're actually clapping for us!"), and it makes you want to shout out encouragement.

The device also gives the performance a great dynamic range. Before the doo-wop number "Cry," for instance, Jinx is just recovering from his latest nosebleed, finally removing the cotton balls he's been wearing in his nostrils for the entire previous song. Through the first couple of verses, he sings beautifully but still looks humiliated and terrified--and then, after the bridge, overcome by the spirit of the music, he suddenly bursts into a Elvis Presley-like wail, creating such a shock of sound that the audience literally goes wild (and this in Palo Alto, where audiences are not given to such behavior).

The dynamic range shows its force also in the music. The Plaids sing much of their material in such a soft, understated manner that today's rock-damaged ears may not be able to handle it (as well as musical director Matthew Stenquist-Mattei--who needs to watch the volume on that piano, sir). The softness makes it that much more pleasurable, however, at those moments when the Plaids let it rip. It's also quite beautiful whenever the four split from perfectly phrased unison passages into sudden, lush harmonics.

Being a devout swingaholic, my own favorite was "Undecided," the Sid Robin/Charles Shavers tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and treated here to all manner of showy stops and loopy phrasings. There are, however, plenty of styles to go around: calypso (a sing-along "Matilda"), '50s pop ("Chain Gang"), Latin ("Papa Loves Mambo") and a few surprise combos, like an English/Spanish "Perfidia" and a hilarious swing treatment of the Beatles' "She Loves You" ("She loves you, yessirree-Bob!").

There are even small moments of drama, especially Francis' grief-stricken inability to finish the phrase "The night we were ... (killed)" and his poetic final monologue describing four-part singing as a kind of heavenly game in which the friends toss around diminished chords like sonic footballs.

The show makes some artful detours from shyness and great songs to produce some winning gags, including a brisk choreography with plunger-tipped microphone stands, shamelessly punny takes on their name ("our Christmas album, 'Plaid Tidings'"), the myth-like Tale of Perry Como's Golden Cardigan, and a knock-down, drag-out, three-minute-and-11-second condensation of every silly act ever presented on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

"Forever Plaid" is a massively entertaining show. The Palo Alto Players have a real winner on their hands.

What: The Palo Alto Players present "Forever Plaid."

When: Continues through Oct. 3.

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

How much: Tickets are $20-$22.

Info: Call (650) 329-0891. 

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