Croon Over Miami

On a fateful night in February, 1964, en route to pick up custom-made plaid tuxedos for their first big gig, an eager but amateur singing quartet is slammed broadside by a busload of parochial-school virgins bound for the Beatles' debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. All four members of the band, who call themselves The Plaids, die in the crash, symbolically ending an era of sweet, romantic harmonies and paving the way for Sgt. Pepper's psychedelics. Fortunately, the virgins escape unharmed.

Many years pass, and the age of innocence has faded to a dim memory. Watergate and Iranscam, terrorism and plagues pollute recent history, discordant notes tone perpetually in the background. Like supermen to the rescue, The Plaids return to Earth as teen angels, ready to inject a healthy dose of harmony, humor, and charm into the world. They've been given one last chance to shine for a night, to record the album of their dreams, and to perform before a live audience.

Though their quivering stomachs and failing memories initially paralyze the boys on stage, when they do finally muster the courage to entertain, they seem to magically transform from clunky amateurs to seasoned professionals, soaring through such Fifties favorites as "Magic Moments," "Heart and Soul," "Three Coins in the Fountain," and "Love is a Many Splendored Thing."

Sparky, Smudge, Jinx, and Francis are the Plaids, harmonizers who make the "biggest comeback since Lazarus" in Forever Plaid, an amusing and endearing comic revue at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This deceptively intelligent piece, already a hit in New York, Boston, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., blends satire, tribute, and song in successful measures, embracing the audience with warmth and wit.

Francis (or Frankie), the nominal leader of the group, encourages his comrades along, stressing the need to complete this musical mission on Earth. While he battles a nervous stomach and shortness of breath, the other members are experiencing their own changes: Jinx, shy and reluctant, is afflicted with nosebleeds and a melancholy longing for love. Sparky, who once worked in "better dresses," now enjoys playing the ham. And Smudge metamorphoses from a gangly nerd into a matinee idol.

In awkward attempts to present the greatest show on earth, The Plaids overdo the silly choreography of their era (including a hilarious bit with toilet plungers), present a full version of the Ed Sullivan Show in just over three minutes (complete with dancing seals, accordion players, and Topo Gigio), and recall an encounter with their idol, Perry Como, during which Sparky stole the crooner's carburetor. They also vocalize flawlessly, belting out 30 classic tunes in the tradition of the Four Aces and the Four Freshmen.

Stuart Ross, who wrote, directed, and choreographed the show, keeps the pace quick, the jokes fresh, and the Plaids forever endearing. He's ably helped by musical director and arranger James Raitt (singer Bonnie's brother and Broadway legend John's son), who in this performance added excellent touches on stage as the group's piano player and conductor. (David Chase has taken over as conductor until the end of the run.) Jane Reisman's lighting design boasts golden hues with several surprises, and the simple but high-tech set by Neil Peter Jampolis projects a decidedly heavenly feel.

The Plaids never falter in voice, nor in energy. Their enthusiasm and genuine sincerity propel the show forward, while their perfect pitch and high jinks enhance even lighter fare such as "Chain Gang" and "Papa Loves Mambo." Michael Winther (Sparky), Gregory Jbara (Smudge), Neil Nash (Francis), and Paul Binotto (Jinx) sing with a central heart and act with ensemble accuracy, though Binotto's delicate, perfect tenor stands out in several numbers.

If you're looking for weighty, "important" drama and theatrical risk-taking - an unfortunately rare event in these environs - you should probably skip the Plaids. But not all art belongs to the Bard, and a show that manages to fuse essentially light music, nervous performers, and slapstick fun into a memorable night at the theater merits respect - and a visit.

Written, directed and choreographed by Stuart Ross; musical direction, continuity, arrangement, and musical supervision by James Raitt; with Paul Binotto, Gregory Jbara, Neil Nash, and Michael Winther. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove, through February 16. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Tickets cost $24 to 35, with discount plans available. For more information and a complete schedule of performances, call 442-4000.


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