The 1950s foursome (and eponymous 1990 musical) known as Forever Plaid, who’ve been entertaining audiences with their close-harmony vocals and amusing between-song patter for the past two decades, now make a Christmas season return to earth at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in a holiday spin-off cleverly titled Plaid Tidings.

The brainchild of writer-director Stuart Ross, Forever Plaid are best friends Sparky (David Brannen), Jinx (Leo Daignault), Smudge (Jason Heil), and Frankie (Michael Winther), victims of a 1964 car crash (they collided with a busload of Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show). In Forever Plaid, the foursome were granted permission to return to earth for one final show. Plaid Tidings allows them an encore performance.

Once you get past that rather morbid setup (one that continues to pop up in frequent reminders that the four are indeed dead, though fortunately the schoolgirls survived unscratched), Plaid Tidings proves a nostalgic, funny, tuneful two hours of Christmas cheer—with a few Greatest Hits from the original Forever Plaid thrown in for good measure.

Opening with their signature number “Stranger In Paradise,” the quartet proceed to entertain us with “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream),” performed with 5-foot-long toilet plungers as microphones—because that’s how they practiced it. Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule” morphs into “Cool” from West Side Story (kudos to Ross for his Jerome Robbins-inspired musical staging). Other clever mash-ups include “Besame Mucho” + “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (makes sense) and “Angels We Have Heard On High” + Harry Belafonte’s “The Banana Boat Song (“In excelsis Day-O, Day-O, daylight comes and me wanna go home.”) There’s also Belafonte’s “Matilda,” with the seasonally tweaked audience-sing-along refrain “Hey! Matilda, Matilda, Matilda, she take me money and go Christmas shopping,” and an international Christmas mini-medley including “Feliz Navidad,” “Mele Kalikimaka,” and even a few bars of “Draidl” for anyone of the Jewish faith who has happened to wander in.

In a hilarious contemporary twist, “The Night Before Christmas” becomes “TWUZ THA NITE B4 XMAS,” performed boy band style with leader Frankie disbelieving the hip-hop moves his body can’t resist gyrating to. The sensitive, All-American Frankie also gets to sing-act “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” as an a cappella solo performance-cum-therapy session when pianist Steven Withers takes a post-intermission break (he’s the member of a very strong union, you see). “This song has always been upsetting,” Frankie tells us. “When Rudolph saved the day, the reindeer shouted out with glee, but I say, too little too late!”

An audience volunteer (Jan at the performance reviewed here) helps Forever Plaid play the Christmas bells in a medley of “Carol Of The Bells” “Joy to the World” and “Mr. Santa,” played to the tune of “Mr. Sandman.”

Other Act Two highlights include the Plaids’ dream of backing up Perry Como finally coming true on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which has the foursome performing live to a black-and-white clip from one of Perry’s many Christmas Specials. Making a return from the original Forever Plaid is “The Ed Sullivan Show (In Three Minutes),” which manages to compact José Jimenez, Senor Wences, Topo Gigio, The Vienna Boys Choir, The Rockettes, the Flying Walendas, Alvin And The Chipmunks, performing seals, acrobats, jugglers, plate spinners—and Smudge standing in very nicely for Ed himself—all in about three minutes.

Oh, and there’s a even heavenly cell phone call from Rosemary Clooney, whom the boys salute with “Mambo Italiano” and “Hey There.”

Ross’s script can get a little corny (or a lot), as when one of the boys reveals his tip for staying young in the afterlife (“I use post mortem moisturizer. It gets rid of the dead skin.”), but as long as Forever Plaid are singing, it’s first-rate holiday entertainment, particularly for those in the audience old enough to remember the 1950s.

All four San Diego Plaids are seasoned regional theater vets, with Brannen, Daignault, and Winther making return visits to the Old Globe. (Both Brannen and Daignault have played the title role in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.) Each is a delight: Brannen as the asthmatic Frankie, Daignault as nervous, nose-bleeding Jinx, Heil as the klutzy Smudge with the big bass voice, and Winther as wise guy Sparky. Each scores in solo moments, and together their vocals are (what else?) heavenly.

Director Ross deserves bonus points for meeting the challenges of staging this Plaid Tidings in the round, no small feat when you consider that the Plaids normally get to stand in a straight line facing the fourth wall, and here must pay equal attention to all four sides of the house. Thumbs up too to scenic designer Sean Fanning for adapting what is usually a proscenium set to an in-the-round format. Chris Rynne’s lighting design, Paul Peterson’s sound design, Chirs Luessmann’s projection design, and Deb Stein’s original costume design are all as good as it gets.

Music director Don LeMaster (and associate musical director Withers) merit highest marks for helping the Plaid Tidings cast sound as marvelous as they do, harmonizing to vocal and musical arrangements by James Raitt, Brad Ellis, Rayond Berg, and James Snyder, the latter of whom gets credit for musical continuity and supervision. Tim Christensen on bass joins pianist Withers in the Plaids’ flawless musical accompaniment. Elizabeth Stephens is stage manager.

Plaid Tidings ends on a heartwarming note, with Frankie reminding his buddies that “When sad things happen, we all have the ability to create a little harmony,” just before the Forever Plaid foursome conclude a terrific two hours of song and laughter with a memorable, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

Only the Grinch could resist.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
–Steven Stanley
December 5, 2010
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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