Nostalgic music stories have become a common recipe in musicals today. Productions like “Dreamgirls,” “Jersey Boys,” “Motown: The Musical,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and even “Rock of Ages” capitalize both on the tumultuous stories that come with finding music-industry stardom and the charm of hearing songs and styles of the past.
Just as “Dreamgirls” and “Motown” do with soul and “Rock of Ages” does with ’80s hair rock, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of “Forever Plaid” takes audiences back to the time of the all-male doo-wop groups of the 1950s and in the process reaches deeper themes that come with searching for the perfect harmony.
This new production of “Forever Plaid” proves that stardom, while tantalizing, is typically short-lived. The story follows a four-man fictional doo-wop group, “The Plaids” that find a tragic, untimely end.
The play, originally penned by Stuart Ross, threads an emotional tale about four hopeful singers, Sparky, Jinx, Frankie, and Smudge, who deem themselves “The Plaids.”
Like most innocent stardom-seekers, the talent was promising and the attitudes were bright. But on one fateful night in the 1960s, the curtain for this eager quartet’s potential fame came to an unexpected close when the pass away after their ’54 Mercury crashes into a bus of Catholic school girls on their way to see the Beatles.
Nevertheless, the show must go on and a story unfolds that allows “The Plaids” to procure their deserved glory. An unforeseen power (from mysterious sources) grants the singers one last opportunity to rise from the dead and put on the performance of a lifetime.
With its understated off-Broadway premiere in 1990, the show continues to be acted and enjoyed throughout the world.
The musical was even produced as a movie in 2008 and later adapted into a holiday sequel production, “Plaid Tidings.”
Opening Friday at 7 p.m. and running through Dec. 29 at The Rep, “Forever Plaid” takes its turn as the main production. Staged in the intimate atmosphere of The Stackner Cabaret, audiences will have the chance to interact with the actors and personally engage in the play.
“(‘Forever Plaid’) fits The Stackner very well,” Paul Helm, who plays Jinx in the show, said. “It’s a great show for that environment. It’s very intimate and there’s a lot of interaction with the audience. We are always chatting with them, even when we have lines or we’re singing stuff. It’s so helpful to have an audience right there at our feet because that’s who we’re singing to. We’re not just doing this for us. We’re doing it for them.”
According to Artistic Director Mark Clements, “Forever Plaid” has always been a part of their show “to-do” list; it was simply a matter of time before they made the decision to commit to the production.
JC Clementz, director of “Forever Plaid,” is determined to create a noteworthy rendition of the show in his Stackner Cabaret debut. His efforts are evident in the play’s emphasis; rather than creating a production that revolves around the show’s musical aspects, though they are still integral to the story, Clementz’s interpretation focuses on the theme of harmony.
Helm attributes much credit to the director for establishing this deeper meaning behind “Forever Plaid’s” plot.
“It’s going to be a really unique ‘Plaid.’ This production has heart. There’s more meaning to it. There should be some sincerity and meaning to it. You can see that each character has a personality and that there is a journey throughout the show,” Helm said. “It’s not just guys singing songs from the ’50s. They have a reason for being there. They’re there to create harmony within their group and in the world.”
“The Plaids” serve as a representational testimony to the “guy groups” of the 1950s. While their history is not rooted in fact, its message and characters are still moving.
The Rep’s heartfelt presentation of “Forever Plaid” is set to present four distinctive, earnest and quirky characters, played by Stackner veterans Helm and Adam Estes, as well as newcomers to the venue Nate Lewellyn and Anand Nagraj. The group will be dressed for the era in dinner jackets and bow-ties. Doo-woppers and teenagers alike can find joy in the harmonies created by this quartet and may connect with an often under-appreciated era in music that brought acts like The Coasters and The Drifters. Audiences may even recognize some of the show’s classic songs like “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”
“It’s a show that can cater to anybody of any age,” Helm said. “It’s fun; it’s entertaining; it’s got a lot of heart and poignancy to it. It is a very touching show. If you’re going to see ‘Forever Plaid,’ this is the one you want to see. It goes above and beyond what a ‘normal’ ‘Forever Plaid’ production would be.”
Story by Emily Kuether
Special to the Tribune