Review: 'Plaid' is rad; BIG ARTS serves up fun holiday revue

The cast of 'Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings.' Michael LoBalsamo, Robby May, Matthew Alan Schmidt, John Ramsey. Performances are 8 p.m. December 17 – 22, and 26 – 29. There are 4 p.m. matinées December 23 and 30. Tickets are $42 for adults and $20 for children. There will be a special New Year’s Eve performance Monday, December 31, which will include a champagne reception and toast. Tickets are $75. Show begins at 9 p.m.

Courtesy BIG ARTS

The cast of "Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings." Michael LoBalsamo, Robby May, Matthew Alan Schmidt, John Ramsey. Performances are 8 p.m. December 17 – 22, and 26 – 29. There are 4 p.m. matinées December 23 and 30. Tickets are $42 for adults and $20 for children. There will be a special New Year’s Eve performance Monday, December 31, which will include a champagne reception and toast. Tickets are $75. Show begins at 9 p.m.

What: Holiday musical revue and sequel to "Forever Plaid"

When: 8 p.m. December 19-22 & 26-29. Two 4 p.m. matinées December 23 & 30.

Where: 2200 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel

Cost: $42 for adults, $20 for child 16 and under

Information: BIG ARTS Marks Box Office at (239) 395-0900, Strauss Theater box office at (239) 472-6862 or bigarts.org

Something Else: Special New Year’s Eve performance at 9 p.m. Monday, December 31; $75, includes champagne reception.

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

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— Over the river and across the bridge, past a forest of twinkling Christmas lights and inside a cozy little theatre on Sanibel, four guys are singing Christmas tunes. Tinsel is hung, snowflakes are in the air and dreams of sugarplums dance. Welcome to BIG ARTS and "Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings."

"Plaid Tidings" represents a sequel/spinoff of sturdy 1960s musical revue "Forever Plaid," about a heavenly quartet who returns to earth to complete one last concert. This time, the boys have to put on a Christmas show. Michael LoBalsamo, John Ramsey, Matthew Schmidt and Robby May play the Plaids. Cue the carols!

The show proves a reliably goofy, sentimental and suitably cheery holiday revue. Smiling boys in (what else?) plaid jackets belt tunes, trade jokes and offer up a smiling, beaming evening of glad tidings and joy. Is "Plaid Tidings" the perfect Christmas show? No. Does it make the audience laugh, giggle and clap with glee? Of course. Could it be be better? Probably.

Director Michael Stanek also helmed last year's effortlessly charming "Winter Wonderettes." If "Plaid Tidings" suffers in comparison to four lovely ladies in ice-blue gowns prancing about the stage using much the same catalog, well anything would. Not that the boys don't look really cute in their second-act red Christmas sweaters, mind you. Still, for all its positives, "Plaid Tidings" doesn't have the same joie de vivre that made watching "Wonderettes" akin to waking up on Christmas morning, sprinting downstairs and tearing the paper off presents with abandon.

The "big moments" of "Plaid Tidings" land with ease. Stanek guides showy solos that allow individual talents to shine. Ramsey, always a reliable talent, sparkles in a hilarious, rant-filled rendition of "Rudolph." May, returning from "Das Barbecu," delivers a gorgeous, heartfelt version of "The Most Wonderful Time." Listen for his deep bass thrum to carry many of the tunes.

Perhaps the show's biggest revelation - Schmidt. A frequent chorus member at Broadway Palm, he appeared in the ensemble of last spring's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Here, elevated to a lead, he gives a breakout performance; the mediocre material seems better for his electric presence on the stage. One of my favorite moments was the boundless excitement (literally leaping up and down) over old Chords song "Sh-Boom."

The show bulges with throwaway jokes like an over-stuffed Christmas stocking. "Twas the Night Before Christmas" gets reworked as a hip-hop spectacular, complete with fly dance steps, as "Twuz Tha Nite B4 XMAS." Notes drop from the ceiling like snowflakes as the immortal Rosemary Clooney sends help from heaven. A zany Ed Sullivan remix sees dozens of gags from dancing mannequins to spinning plates to ventriloquist dummies to dogs and hoops.

Act one curtain number proves the show's highlight. Out of nowhere, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" transitions into "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" as part of "Christmas Calypso." Bongos appear. Straw hats pop into being like Red Stripes on a Kingston beach. Party lanterns flicker and bob. Maracas sound. Hands start clapping and boy-o, even the piano player is pounding out a reggae beat. Nothing beats a rousing Christmas in the Caribbean. See it to believe it - because it might be the most amusing thing I've seen all December.

Yet, for all the fun, the show as a whole never feels cohesive. "Plaid Tidings" lumbers from scene to scene to scene like a show in search of a plot and purpose. Beyond the thinly scripted material itself, the cast displays little on-stage camaraderie or chemistry. Monday's opening night performance felt like the quartet still needed time to work out the kinks in the show.

Music director Tammy Holder does a solid job teasing the individual voices into shape, but the harmonies never fold together. Even though much of the show depends on gimmicky songs ("Mele Kalikimaka," "The Dreidel Song"), classic carols and tunes sometimes sound ragged, as if the cast were missing a gear. Kudos though to pianist Byron Gaurder and bass player Jay Heavlen - and to the theatre for committing to live music.

"Plaid Tidings" gets a lot of things right - especially the visuals. Clifton Chadick's sleek, modernist set makes the Strauss space feel huge. Four huge slate walls tower from floor to ceiling. Two single Christmas wreaths decorate them, with a lavish helping of silver tinsel. A circular platform in black and silvers offers multiple levels for the cast, along with glittering silver stand mics.

David A. Sexton creates a visual wonderland with a moody array of gorgeous lights. His genius lies in highlighting the small moments and using the intimate space to its best advantage while creating a vivid, exciting experience. Look for the exceptionally moving tribute to Perry Como. Sexton projects archival video along the rear of the set, artfully catching a strip of tinsel and a wall. The understated, less-is-more design might not seem so overtly "holiday-themed," but it serves as a nice platform for the production.

If "Plaid Tidings" isn't the biggest box underneath the Christmas tree, it certainly isn't the smallest. Head to Sanibel and open this festive present filled with merry tunes, sparkling performances and glittering snowflakes of fun.

What's the last time you saw snow? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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