The most thrilling action that takes place in the Mankato Playhouse’s production takes place behind the curtain, as a somber announcer explains how 1960s harmony group, the Plaids, are killed en route to their big musical break after a fatal collision with a school bus. The four Plaid members then make their entrance, singing a grim four-part Latin chant while eerie smoke billows about their feet.

While the beginning of this two-part musical revue is a bit morbid, the rest of the show is actually a zany, bouncy, feel-good love song to the barbershop quartets of the 1950s and ’60s, one crooning four-part harmony at a time.

Forever Plaid opened on July 31 at the Mankato Playhouse, rounding out its 2019-2020 season. Written by Stuart Ross and performed off-Broadway since the late 1980s, the Mankato version of the show is directed by Kevin J. Barnard and stars Matthew Atwood, Noah Thomas, Hans Bloedel and Paul Ragan in a bare-bones cast, accompanied by only pianist Noah Wilson and bassist Al Behrends.

Song Fest

The show truly embraces the mantra “style over substance,” with a negligible story—four guys killed in a car accident come back in an unexplained way 56 years later, appearing on stage at the Mankato Playhouse. Then they sing songs. That’s truly the extent of the plot, but this show is not about the plot; it’s about the songs.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of classic songs or just looking for something a little different, Forever Plaid promises to be a fun evening with good food, good performances and good music.

The production includes a whole roster of ’50s and ‘60s favorites, including “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Catch a Falling Star” and the grand finale, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.” It takes precise, perfected harmony to pull off barbershop quartet versions of these hits, and that is where this cast shines. Matthew Atwood, playing the unofficial group leader, Frankie, is the ringer, with unquestionably the best and strongest voice of the bunch. His stage presence is electric, and he somehow manages to corral the ever-spiraling chaos onstage into a coherent, progressing song lineup. His castmates add solid harmony, though notes waver here and there. Overall, though, the songs are almost always perfect, with truly impressive performances that strike just the right note of nostalgia.

Submitted Photo - The cast members of Mankato Playhouse's rendition of Forever Plaid
Submitted Photo – The cast members of Mankato Playhouse’s rendition of Forever Plaid. From left to right: Paul Ragan, Matt Attwood, Noah Thomas, and Hans Bloedel

The unsung hero of the show, and the one who might just give Atwood a run for his money for the “star” title, is Noah Wilson on piano. While his expression never changes throughout the show, his piano skills take the production to the next level and are a treat to hear even without the vocal arrangements he’s accompanying.

Cast Chemistry

In between songs, the audience does learn superficial bits and pieces of the characters’ lives, which each character getting some time in the spotlight. Paul Ragan’s Smudge is the most endearing group member, with an earnest awkwardness that is both funny and appealing (even if he doesn’t quite have the bass range to pull off that last note of “Sixteen Tons”). While this show is all about the songs, it would still fall apart without a believable chemistry among the group members, but these four actors build an authentic friendship onstage, playing off each other effortlessly and naturally. There is always something funny going on between at least two characters at any given time.

While the cast might be small, the actors still manage to fill up the stage with a frantic energy that seems impossible to keep up through an entire full-length show—but they do. Perhaps the most frenetic part of the entire show is the Plaids’ rendition of “Lady of Spain,” as they manage to condense an entire episode of the Ed Sullivan Show into three minutes: dog tricks, juggling, a ukulele-playing nun, trick shots, balloons, and of course an accordion solo.

Submitted Photo - The cast members of Mankato Playhouse's rendition of Forever Plaid
Submitted Photo – The cast members of Mankato Playhouse’s rendition of Forever Plaid. From left to right: Hans Bloedel, Matt Attwood, Noah Thomas (in the back) and Paul Ragan

The cast’s impressive energy, unfortunately, can also be a problem. Songs that could be poignant and meaningful—such as “Moments to Remember” and the show’s finale—are overshadowed by the Plaids’ zany antics. While almost always funny, these scripted mishaps—forgotten choreography, repeated nosebleeds, heartburn and more—sometimes take away from parts of the show that could be used to flesh out characters and help the audience become more invested in the group. In the second act, after fanning the show’s energy to a fever-pitch during the Ed Sullivan bit, the show takes a dive into a morose monologue as the Plaid members struggle with their untimely deaths. It’s the first real hint of any emotion in the whole show other than bombastic cheerfulness, and it’s jarring—and not in a good way. The abrupt ending, which occurs right after the last song, doesn’t offer any sense of closure, either.

Overall Entertaining

Despite the uneven tone of the production, and a second half that somehow feels longer than the first even though it has fewer than half the songs, Forever Plaid manages to be entertaining nearly the entire time. The special effects are top notch, with perfect lighting, a timely fog machine and even bubbles that rain down from the ceiling. (One slight catch was the show’s sound system, which didn’t seem to work for Plaid member Hans Bloedel and therefore made it difficult to hear his solos.) What elevates the show from just a collection of nostalgic, well-sung songs is how skillfully the four cast members interact with the audience, from asking them questions—“What year is it?!”—to leading a group sing-a-long of “Matilda Matilda.” You’re not just watching a show; you’re part of the show. And it’s a lot of fun.

Submitted Image - Poster for the Mankato Playhouse rendition of Forever Plaid
Submitted Image – Poster for the Mankato Playhouse rendition of Forever Plaid

Whether you’re a longtime fan of classic songs or just looking for something a little different, Forever Plaid promises to be a fun evening with good food, good performances and good music.

Forever Plaid is onstage at the Mankato Playhouse from July 31-Aug. 16. Performances include Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees. Catering for the pre-show meals is provided by Absolute Catering. The beef tenderloin option is especially recommended. There are also show-only tickets available. For more information, visit mankatoplayhouse.com.

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