Fantastic Four

The Astoria Performing Arts Center is a small building tucked away near the Triborough Bridge, where it is being temporarily housed by the Greek Cultural Center in what appears to be the basement of a residence. But for those willing to give their Metrocard a little use, a trip to the end of the N subway line is akin to finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There's no leprechaun involved, however, just the solid quartet that makes up the cast of Forever Plaid, a musical that, despite never playing the Great White Way, has enjoyed nearly 20 years of success at the national and regional tour levels. It is fitting that the Plaids play such an intimate venue as the APAC, since the group never made the big time during its heyday. In an irony to end all ironies, the fictitious band, which continued the quintessential 1950's doo-wop style into the 1960's, died in a car accident—a collision with a group of teen girls on their way to see the Beatles in 1964, just as the Plaids were headed to their first big gig. The show's premise puts the foursome in limbo, hoping that if they can simply perform their concert, they can finally move on.

There isn't much more plot or suspense than that, just a series of delightful performances and character bits. Frederick Hamilton leads these four outstanding multitalents as Frankie, perhaps the most grounded of the group. Shad Olsen is terrific as the lispy Sparky, whose speech impediment gives way to amazing vocal chops time and time again (he also shows off his skills as a pianist during "Heart and Soul"). Ryan J. Ratliff is Smudge, Sparky's childlike half-brother, while Joseph Torello is the nerdy Jinx.

The group gels together quite well on such standards as "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Sixteen Tons/Chain Gang," and "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing," and the members' zeal for the songs is infectious. They also put their well-honed, joyous harmonies to work on lesser-known songs, including "Perfidia," "Before Love," "Crazy 'Bout Ya Baby," and the particularly tender "No, Not Much." Another highlight is the first-act closing medley of "Caribbean Plaid," in which the Plaids sing the songs of Harry Belafonte; numbers like "Calypso," "Day-O," and "Matilda" bring the audience to its feet.

Flawless as this performance is, there is one minor complaint about the show, and it is a structural one. The second act is barely half the length of the first. While it is wise to ensure that the second act runs shorter than the first, it would have been nice if Forever Plaid had incorporated more songs (the well-paced show flies by), or at least divvied up the numbers with a tad more equality. However, director Brian Swasey (a talented performer himself) makes the most of each number, recreating many of the archetypical dance moves associated with the 1950's crooning groups that Plaid so lovingly pays homage to. (Writer Stuart Ross did the original choreography.) This is a group that is truly in sync.

Only at one point near the show's end does the dialogue overtake the singing, as Hamilton delivers a bittersweet monologue in which he recognizes the heights that the quartet never achieved. While that may be true of the Plaids, the show that features them at APAC is nothing short of a major success. Encore!

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post