Seamless harmony

Way Off Broadway weaves a doo-wop dreamscape

Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007

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David S. Spence⁄Special to the Gazette
Left to right: Francis (Jonny Kigin), Jinx (Shawn Nakia), Smudge (Will Emory) and Sparky (Jordan Stocksdale) in ‘‘Forever Plaid.” Below: Kigin leads Emory and Stocksdale in song.

Car crashes, lifelong dreams all but consumed in a fiery blaze, and the return of the living dead: Looks like Way Off Broadway has another feel-good hit on their hands.

Don’t those bubblegum oldies from the fifties just make everything seem peachy?

But, truly, ‘‘Forever Plaid” is just that — a life-affirming, spirit-lifting, feel-good show, notes managing director Justin Kiska of the theater’s 2007 season opener.

‘‘This is ‘the’ 1950s nostalgic musical,” he said. ‘‘We’re really happy to start the year with it. It was one of those shows that audiences kept asking us to do. We’d had it on the schedule a number of times, but always at the last minute it was replaced by something else. This year, we had a spot in the schedule, so we put it on there, ran with it and never looked back.”

Sounds like the story’s second-chance quartet of musically gifted, if socially inept, pals — Francis, Jinx, Sparky and Smudge — who, en route to the big concert, are involved in a collision with a bus of Catholic schoolgirls.

While not quite making it out of the wreckage, thanks to divine providence they do make a belated curtain call, gifted with an otherworldly comeback and the chance to perform the gig of their afterlives.

Written by Stuart Ross, the endearing and energetic revue originally opened at New York’s Triad Theater in 1990 to widespread acclaim. Over the next decade it continued to garner international success, going so far as to join the contemporary ranks of the resurgent movie-musical (soon to be released, promises the official Web site).

It’s no wonder. ‘‘Forever Plaid” is, by all accounts, a toe-tapping crowd-pleaser. It’s a heartfelt homage to those golden-age guy groups with numeric names, chock-full of yesteryear’s greatest melodies, from leisurely love ballads like ‘‘Three Coins in the Fountain” to Sam Cooke’s gloriously cacophonous ‘‘Chain Gang,” and everything in between. There’s even a bit of Belafonte’s ‘‘Day-O” and Perry Como’s ‘‘Papa Loves Mambo,” mixed in for good, spicy measure.

‘‘It’s going to bring back a lot of memories,” said Kiska. ‘‘There are so many songs, everyone is going to know something.”

Even those who were not present to bear witness to the tunes’ heyday will be hard-pressed not to sing along.

Musical Director Deanna Davis, of Frederick, hardly allowed her youthful 22 years to stand in the way of getting hooked on ‘‘Plaid.”

A recent graduate of Westminster Choir College, Davis has studied piano for 15 years, and for the last five has served on keyboards for various Way Off Broadway productions.

She took her first tour of duty as musical director with the theater’s ‘‘Holiday Cheer” this winter, and was happy to return for this project, though she admits being previously unfamiliar with the piece.

While most of the show’s songlist sports some fifty plus years of record dust, for Davis, it provided a different sort of challenge. ‘‘It was all new to me,” she said.

To prepare, she and synthesizer guru Eric Seebach scoured the soundtrack, breaking the four-part harmony down individually to get a feel for the music.

‘‘We’d experiment to see what sounded the best and go from there,” she said.

Joined in the proverbial pit by drummer Joseph Baker, the rest was then left up to the four crooners on stage, who, thus far, said Davis, ‘‘are blending very nicely.”

Busy blending as the four Plaids are Way Off Broadway regulars William T. Emory, Jr. as Smudge, Shawn Nakia as Jinx, Jonny Kigin as Francis, and Kevin C. Rapier and Jordan Stocksdale sharing the role of Sparky.

‘‘[It’s great to] get the opportunity to sing with three other voices,” said Kigin, whose Francis serves as the group’s emotional leader. ‘‘There’s some real neat harmonizing. Some real nice sounds.”

And while not all of the leads have worked together before, to watch them rehearse, said Kiska, you would never know.

‘‘They all have such a great connection. [It’s so] poignant,” he said. ‘‘You really do believe that they have this friendship. And obviously, the more fun the guys have, the more fun the audience has.”

While the music will fill the seats, it’s the touching story, Kigin believes, that will appeal to Way Off Broadway audiences and have them leaving the theater with a song in their hearts.

‘‘It’s one of those shows ... where almost everything is dictated by the integrity of the characters. [These guys are] honest, trustworthy — maybe a little on the geeky side — but they want to do right by each other.”