By Kay Kipling
If you've never seen any version of Stuart Ross' cozy musical hit, Forever Plaid, you must surely be in the minority. It seems to pop up frequently around town and around the country, leaving a trail of nostalgia for the innocent musical harmonies of the 1950s and early '60s in its wake. Its holiday version, Plaid Tidings, may appear less often, but it's still a popular choice when December rolls around.
This season it's the Manatee Players' turn to bring the Plaids--Jinx (Berry Ayers, who will be replaced by Jason Ellis during the play's run), Sparky (Andrew Suchman), Frankie (Jason Macumber) and Smudge (Jeffrey Grolemund) back from the Great Beyond, where they've been languishing since a fatal car accident that took place the same night the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show--hardly coincidental timing.
In the original, the Plaids were allowed back for one night on earth to present the show they never got to, and that conceit is repeated here, as the first act has them arriving onstage and speculating--with some help from their unseen friend, Rosemary Clooney--as to their purpose in coming back to earth.
For anyone who's seen Forever Plaid, the first act here feels warmed over, both in dialogue and in song material, and it's not like we learn anything new about the characters. Act II, though, does put the audience in a pleasantly reminiscent state of mind, as the Plaids finally get around to producing the holiday special they always longed to, replete with Perry Como cardigans and Christmas songs both familiar (The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I'll Be Home for Christmas, etc.) and created just for the show (Twuz tha Nite B4 Xmas, Holiday Talk).
Those cardigans aren't the only remembrance of Como; the Plaids also sing along to a clip from one of his famous holiday specials, as well as paying further tribute to Sullivan with another of the sped-up three-minute entertainments (spinning plates, opera singers, performing dogs, etc.) that were a highlight of the first Plaid outing. It's the funniest bit again here.
Ayers directed and choreographed the show, often with intentionally stiff parodies of the type of moves the Plaids would have thought cool. Some of the awkwardness feels a little more authentic here, though, as if the cast isn't always at ease with their prescribed movements or comic bits.
There is some humor, though, in hearing the slight Grolemund deliver his deepest notes, or overthinking aloud the Plaids' raison d'etre. Macumber also gets a chance to surprise us a little with his analysis of why a song like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer really gets to him. The best numbers, though, mostly come when all four Plaids sing in unison, backed only by musical director Rebecca Heintz and bassist Donald Dean Jr. It's then when the holiday spirit is most likely to overtake you.
Plaid Tidings continues through Dec. 23; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.