By: Angela Guardiani
When I was offered the chance to review Forever Plaid, the jukebox cabaret currently playing at the Panasonic Theatre, I couldn't say yes fast enough. 23 (!) years ago, I saw the original run of the very same show in the very same theatre. The New Yorker, as it was then called, was brand-new, and Forever Plaid was the first show performed in the former movie house. I remember it clearly but with the softness of nostalgia; the shimmering harmonies and sweet story stuck with me, sparking a love of theatre that persists today.
Time goes on and things have changed. I still love to sing but I'm no longer a fresh-faced teenager (thank goodness). The New Yorker itself was torn down in 2004, leaving only the facade, and the larger, sleeker Panasonic Theatre was built in its place. The 1990's are to me now what the 1960's were to my parents in 1989, the year Forever Plaid debuted – a less cynical and less self-aware time. So does the show hold up? Mostly, it does.
Forever Plaid is presented to us as a one-night-only concert performed by the four charming young lads of a harmony quartet. A voice from above tells us that the group had been on their way to their first big gig when they were tragically killed in a car accident with a group of schoolgirls on their way to see The Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearance in 1964, a neat bit of symbolism (just as video killed the radio star, rock n' roll put a nail in the coffin of harmony groups like The Four Lads). Thanks to some mystical metaphysical technobabble, Sparky, Smudge, Frankie and Jinx are allowed to return to Earth to give the concert they were never able to in life.
It's a bit of a grim premise, but don't worry. Apart from a gentle wistfulness over a time long gone, it's the only down moment in 90 minutes of sweet, bubbly fun. The concert unfolds, the quartet is charming and the music is effervescent. Forever Plaid is a show that relies on the charisma and vocal chops of its four leads and this production delivers. Jonathan Cullen (Frankie) really hustles as the group's tenor and defacto leading man, and Scott Beaudin (Sparky) brings a baby-faced enthusiasm to everything he does. (And he comes by it honestly – at 23, he literally was a baby at the time of Forever Plaid's Toronto debut!) Matt Cassidy as the timid bass Smudge is singing a little out of his range and playing a little younger than he is, but he brings a real depth and honesty to his character when given a moment to open up to the audience. The standout of the evening for me was Jeff Madden's performance as Jinx. As with Cassidy, Madden looks a little old to be playing Beaudin's stepbrother, but the second he opens his mouth to sing all is forgiven. His assured, honeyed falsetto brought the house down and gave me the best kind of chills. It's no surprise that Madden did a turn as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys.
So how does the show hold up, after 23 years? The move to a bigger stage isn't in its favour – a lot of visual gags that were clearly intended for a smaller venue fall flat, simply because people can't see them. The actors are emoting their hearts out to reach the balcony and the back of the house, and in a play as gentle as this one, where the emotion comes from smaller, subtler actions, it can come off as looking excessively acrobatic and a little hammy. And in the 90's, jokey calypso and Spanish numbers didn't have the baggage they have now. When I was fourteen, they were hilarious. Now, they remind me that the 1950s and 60s may have looked idyllic – the era of “harmony, innocence, and sincerity of dreams,” as the program puts it.
But does any of that matter in a show like this? It really, really doesn't. In everything that counts, Forever Plaid delivers. Any small inconsistencies in the cast is overcome by their chemistry and their exquisite harmonies – any uncomfortable thoughts about the era are put aside by the show's self-awareness. Forever Plaid is about the beauty of the human voice, a love letter to a time gone by that's fine right where it is, firmly in the past. Go see it. I hope your experience is as blissful as mine and that you leave the theatre, as I did, singing.
Photos: Racheal McCaig
Angela Guardiani is a lady of strong opinions who lives and teaches ESL in Toronto. She is a food lover, grammar nerd, book junkie, and will try anything once. Follow her enthusiastic but sporadic tweets at @minorgoddess.