Mark Clements, artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep, has a great big wheelhouse.
We all know what a wheelhouse is. In baseball, it’s the pitch in the perfect place for the batter. In life, it’s a place or something where you have a wonderful advantage and where you are very comfortable.
Clements has a huge wheelhouse. He can stage a play as serious as "The Diary of Anne Frank," and as musically and technologically adventurous as "Ragtime."
And he has hit his stride in the intimate setting of the Stackner Cabaret.
No further evidence is needed than to let the smooth joy of "Forever Plaid" wash over you. The trip down memory lane opened Sunday night and will run through the end of December.
In the last two seasons, Clements has staged some of the most exciting musical theater ever seen in Milwaukee at the Stackner.
Last season, he hit home runs with "Gutenberg! The Musical," "Blues in the Night" and the breathtaking "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash."
With "Forever Plaid," he has grabbed hold of a play that has been around for over two decades. It’s been performed everywhere from Off-Broadway to Off-Podunk, USA with every city and college in between.
Most often the show plays almost more like a concert. The story of a four-boy harmony group that was killed and then comes back to earth serves as a shell around some timeless songs.
Director JC Clementz (we may overdose on people with that last name, no matter how they spell it) has decided to infuse this play and story with much more humor than you normally see in productions.
Make no mistake about it. This play is very, very funny. The number that capsulized the Ed Sullivan show in just over three minutes is about as humorous as it gets. The audience roared.
But this show is about the music and the tight harmonies. Adam Estes, Anand Nagraj, Nate Lewellyn, who was born in Milwaukee and our own resident man for all seasons, Paul Helm, blend like they’ve been doing this for years rather than just a few weeks. They’ve got the look, the sound and the Temptation Walk steps down perfectly.
Their voices, under the music direction of Dan Kazemi, a New York-based associate artist of the Rep, do more than justice to this music.
And what music it is. Songs written by Sammie Cahn and Jule Styne, Merle Travis, Sammie Fain, Al Jolson and Paul Chaplin, Sam Cooke, Lennon and McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Hoagy Carmichael.
At one point in this play, one of the characters talks about "a cloud of warm sound."
When you start your show with "Three Coins in a Fountain" and end it with "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," the audience chills seem to run forever.
The only question about this play is whether people under, say 40 or 50 will respond to it. Sure, there is a Lennon and McCartney song, but this version of "She Loves You" bears almost no resemblance to the original.
The Ed Sullivan Show ended in 1971. "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" topped the charts in 1955. "Three Coins in a Fountain" won an Oscar in 1954.
A part of me thinks that you need at least some memory of this music to appreciate the show. Oh, anyone can appreciate the awesome skill and comedic talent of Helm, who steals the show, if it has been stolen.
But to get drenched in the romance and the singular joys of love lost, found and lost again, you may have to be a person of a certain age.
That certainly doesn’t mean you should ignore this if you are a Generation X or Y, or whatever. If you like great music and lots of laughs, "Forever Plaid" delivers with a "cloud of warm sound."
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