Once upon a time, there were four pals, Frankie, Smudge, Jinx and Sparky, who tragically, while enroute to their first big gig at the airport Hilton, are broadsided by a parochial girls high school bus and killed instantly. (The girls all survive, by the way, and were headed to “The Ed Sullivan Show” to see The Beatles). And so, “holy cannoli,” begins one of the most popular and successful American musicals, “Forever Plaid.”
Written by Stuart Ross with musical arrangements by James Raitt, “Forever Plaid” has been entertaining audiences around the world since 1989 with its delightful revue and comedy format showcasing the clean-cut genre of harmonious guy groups. The plot is simple: The Plaids are allowed back from the afterlife one last time to sing the show they “would have done if they could have done.” Clad in identical white tuxedos and clasping tall tapered candles, The Plaids Lazarus onto the stage while moving and Gregorian chanting through the audience in their approach.
For such a musical to be a success, you need a quartet of four gifted and experienced performers, in addition to skilled musicians. Encore Theatre’s inaugural production does not disappoint. Incredibly, there are just two exquisite musicians onstage accompanying The Plaids: Richard Trost (piano) and Dallas Klytta (bass). They play 24 musical numbers from the ’50s and ’60s flawlessly. The hits range from “Three Coins in the Fountain” to “Sixteen Tons” to classic doo wops. But it is the masterful, lush vocal abilities and pleasing personalities of Terry Christianson (Jinx), Karl Knutson (Frankie), J. Oliver Perry (Smudge) and David Pfenninger (Sparky) that captivate and constantly delight during the entire well-paced, 1-hour-and-20-minute performance.
Each character gets his own time in the spotlight, but, for me, the best moments are Christianson’s timid Jinx’s letting go on “Cry,” Pfenninger’s (Sparky’s) “Golden Cardigan” tribute to Perry Como, Perry’s (Smudge’s) homage to 45s and LPs and the eloquent Knutson’s Frankie continually setting the other three right despite impending asthma attacks. I also appreciated the foursome’s tricky use of plungers during “Crazy About You,” the clever montage of Ed Sullivan acts played out during “Lady of Spain” and the very touching acapella rendition of “Scotland the Brave.” This ensemble is attractive, energetic, cool and smooth.
The Kimball Street Theatre is an intimate black box, and the scenic and lighting design by Tanya Brown Moore is simple, yet very effective, particularly with the addition of enhancing set pieces manned by The Plaids. The use of nightclub tables and regular theater-row seating works well with the plaid-bordered thrust stage and allows the audience a close connection to the congenial foursome. You can be as close or as far as you choose; there are no assigned seats.
High praise must be given to director/choreographer Konnie Kay and music director John G. Slawson, who provide us with a superb, affectionately charming show that deserves sold-out audiences and standing ovations. If “Forever Plaid” is any indication of future Encore productions, I’m more than looking forward to the next one.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
WHEN: Through Jan. 29
WHERE: Kimball Street Theatre at Elgin Academy, 350 S. Park St., Elgin
COST & INFO: Presented by the newly created Encore Theatre Productions, “Forever Plaid” features classic barbershop quartet harmonies and nostalgic pop hits of the 1950s. Schedule: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27-28 and 3 p.m. Jan. 29. Tickets: $20 at www.encoretheatreproductions.com or $23 at the door.