The four heavenly songbirds who call themselves Forever Plaid have returned to earth “one last time” to treat SoCalians to their “live” holiday TV special as the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center presents Stuart Ross’s Plaid Tidings to much deserved audience cheers.

Antlers The 1950s foursome Forever Plaid have been entertaining theatergoers with their close-harmony vocals and amusing between-song patter for over two decades now, first in their eponymous 1990 musical, and more recently in Plaid Tidings, which made its 2001 debut at the Pasadena Playhouse under the more cumbersome title Forever Plaid — A Special Holiday Edition.

The brainchild of writer-director Ross, Forever Plaid are best friends Sparky (Keenon Hooks), Jinx (Nicholas Ferguson), Smudge (Andrew Allen), and Frankie (Timothy Hearl), 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 acts of Christmas cheer—with quite a few Greatest Hits from the original Forever Plaid thrown in for good measure, all of this directed with holiday verve up Simi Valley way by Fred Helsel.

Nutcracker3 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 choreographer Hooks for his Jerome Robbins-inspired dance moves). 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 their piano accompanist (played by musical director Gary Poirot) 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 in a rant that goes on a little too long. “When Rudolph saved the day, the reindeer shouted out with glee, but I say, too little too late!”

An audience volunteer 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. (Reviewer’s note: The line is “My name (pause) José Jiménez” … without the verb.)

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

Antlers2 Ross’s script can get a little corny (or a lot), as when Sparky 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.

What makes Plaid Tidings extra special up in Simi Valley is its terrific cast of four refreshingly young SVCAC vets, each of whom gets his very own moments to shine. They don’t get any more charming or likeable or “Plaidtastic” than Allen as klutzy worrywart Smudge whose glasses can’t hide his boy-next-door sex appeal; Ferguson as nervous, nose-bleeding Jinx, who can’t seem to remember which song comes next; Hearl as the asthmatic Frankie, who proves the group’s most impassioned member; or Hooks as wise guy Sparky, who can turn the world on with his holly, jolly smile. Each scores in solo spotlights, and together their vocals are (what else?) heavenly. (Hooks gets extra snaps for his imaginative choreography, with Tori Cussack as assistant choreographer.)

Production designer/technical director Seth Kamenow’s deceptively simple set has a great big second act surprise in store, props courtesy of properties master Helsel. Costume designer Randon has given each Plaid a pair of splendidly Christmassy outfits (in red-and-green plaid of course). Sasha Venola lights Kamenow’s set and Pool’s costumes with holiday flair (and plenty of colored Christmas lights). Amped voices and the tiptop instrumentals of Poirot and bassist Kevin Hart are expertly mixed by audio designer Nick DeBoisblanc.

Plaid Tidings is produced by Helsel and David Ralphe. Stephen Weston is artistic associate. Kimberly Kiley is stage manager, assisted by stage technicians Derek Stern, Luther Cockrill, April Midori, and Carrie Dean.

Presents With its mix of Hit Parade favorites, December’s Greatest Hits, and all-around Yuletide Cheer, Plaid Tidings offers holiday audiences north of L.A. a delightful Christmas treat … and that makes for Glad Plaid Tidings indeed.

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
December 19, 2013
Photos: Jon Neftali Photography

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