Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Forever Plaid," currently running at Hanover Tavern, is a musical revue full of four-part harmonies, nostalgic for the clean-cut male vocal groups of the 1950s: bands like the Four Aces, the Four Lads and the Four Freshmen.
It's a style of music that went swiftly out of fashion with the rise of Beatlemania and rock 'n' roll, but songs like "Heart and Soul," which almost anyone can play on the piano, and someone might be asked to, "No, Not Much," and "Catch a Falling Star" remain familiar to most audiences. These and other 1950s vocal standards can be heard in "Forever Plaid."
The musical centers on fledgling vocal group the Plaids, four young guys who get together to practice their harmonies in the basement of a family plumbing supply company. They hope to break through to success booking weddings and bar mitzvahs and eventually release an album. But on the precipice of minor success — they've almost got their plaid jackets — on the night that the Beatles would perform for the first time on the "Ed Sullivan Show," all four Plaids died in a car accident. The show takes place in a sort of magical musical purgatory, where the Plaids find themselves with a stage, a two-man band and one last chance to capture the musical glory they never quite achieved in life.
The irony is enjoyable. The Plaids wouldn't have been a success anyways, since they died just as the landscape of popular music was about to change forever. In some ways, their death keeps them from becoming irrelevant — audiences nostalgic for the past cheer them on, no matter the year — and the show asks us to consider what pop music could have been if things had gone differently. What if the Plaids had hit it big, instead?
Director Wes Seals has done a great job with this piece, making use of the space onstage and in the aisles of the theater, keeping the pacing and energy up throughout. The cast for this show is perfect. All four of them are incredible vocalists, and they nail every one of these songs.
Mitchell Ashe is charming and occasionally acrobatic as Sparky. P.J. Llewellyn brings hilarious facial expressions and baritone vocals as Smudge. Ian Page's Jinx overcomes stage fright and a bloody nose, then surprises with his strong vocal performance. Caleb Wade is charismatic and polished as Frankie, the leader of the Plaids. With Marcia Miller Hailey's costumes, and some very slicked-back hair, it's like these four guys stepped right out of the past, which is, of course, the premise of the whole thing.
Musicians Travis West on piano and David Yohe on upright bass were both fantastic. These two are onstage the whole time, interacting with the Plaids and adding to the onstage antics. Terrie Powers' set design is deceptively simple, with two arches and a shiny backdrop, while B.J. Wilkinson's excellent lighting design transforms the space as needed, utilizing neon lights built in to the set, colored lights, spotlights, projections and strings of holiday lights throughout the theater. I thought the lighting was versatile and well-choreographed, almost acting as the silent fifth member of the Plaids.
"Forever Plaid" is a lot of fun. It's funny, nostalgic and light-hearted and quick, running at 90 minutes without an intermission. Audiences who love a good four-part harmony or who just want to revisit a bygone era will love this show.
Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Forever Plaid," currently at the Hanover Tavern, runs until Aug.25. Tickets cost $44. va-rep.org.