Encore Theatre's 'Plaid Tidings' offers terrific vocals, but little additional satisfaction
Photo by Diana Obradovich
Yes, this is partly a consequence of the revue genre’s inherent nature. You go in knowing that whatever semblance of a story there is isn’t going to be the star—the singing and dancing and sketches are. And last year, Encore’s production of “Plaid Tidings”’ prequel, “Forever Plaid”—which told the story of a four-man, 1960s doo-wop group that died in a car crash, only to be returned to earth for the show they never got to perform—won me over by its end.
Yet despite some really tremendous musical performances, “Tidings” ultimately feels like an over-long reunion with old acquaintances: at first, things are pleasant enough—there are light moments of fun and whimsy and surprise—but after a while, you wonder when you might gracefully make your exit.
The fault lies with the show itself, not the performers, who, as I mentioned above, vocally soar, both as a group and individually, and do their best to sell the material for all it’s worth.
Sebastian Gerstner, as Sparky, the mischievous prankster of the group, is like an adorable bad puppy you can’t bring yourself to discipline; Rusty Mewha’s bespectacled Smudge is the pragmatic-but-sentimental Plaid who can’t quite get the group’s carefully orchestrated choreography; Brian Thibault’s Frankie, the group’s asthmatic heartthrob and leader, finds himself digressing about how messed up Frosty and Rudolph’s stories are (while sporting a flashing red nose); and Kevin Rose’s jaw-droppingly fantastic singing brings the house down a few times throughout the show, while playing nervous and nosebleed-plagued tenor Jinx.
Director Barbara F. Cullen provides clever and appropriate choreography, and tries to integrate the Plaids with the audience as often as possible. “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, invites an audience member onto the stage to play a bell when cued—an enjoyable bit—and “Christmas Calypso,” a first act-ending medley of songs that include “Day-O” and “Kingston Market” and “Mathilda,” has Mewha literally singing and dancing in the aisle.
Other highlights include “Sh-Boom” and the achingly beautiful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But among the lowlights is the awkward rap number, “Twuz the Nite B4 Xmas.” (Tellingly, it was only near the end of the song that I realized it was supposed to be a rap; before that, I just thought, “This is really weird.”) The Plaids play it like their bodies are taken over by some unseen force—which they’d have to be, since the singing group supposedly died in a car crash long before rap appeared on the music scene—but the inclusion of a rap number in "Tidings" seems more forced and calculated than funny.
Notably, the second act features a collapsed, three-minute version of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as the Plaids accompanying footage of Perry Como singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The bits have an amusing sweetness, but in the end, they fall short of achieving “can’t miss” status.
Tyler Driskell does good work as the show’s music director—the performers sound perfectly balanced and harmonize beautifully throughout—while Daniel Walker’s lighting design skillfully shifts from intimacy to glitzy stage show, as needed. And because the show’s narrative has the deceased Plaids returning to earth one more time, for a reason they have to figure out for themselves in the first act, Leo Babcock’s set design places them in the middle of three mini-stages, one of which reveals a surprise near the end of the show (well-executed, but the fact that it has to appear on a level well above the stage is unfortunate and distracting). Sharon Larkey Urick designed the Plaids' natty costumes, and Thalia Schramm provided the show’s appropriately cute props.
But I guess that brings us back to the main issue: as cute as “Tidings” is, with its cornball humor, and as skilled as the artists involved in the show may be, “Tidings” is ultimately a retread that offers lots of medleys that, after a while, start to blend into one another.
At the risk of sounding like a complete Scrooge, comfort food stops being comforting when you consume too much of it in one sitting.