Plaid Tidings

Sometimes I wonder if there's a kind of thespian hell, in which actors who are clearly capable of so much more are stuck forever in stale shows as punishment for being bad in some way. If so, Plaid Tidings definitely qualifies.

There are a few good things about this holiday show at the Arvada Center. It's nice to see a musical where the accompaniment consists solely of a piano and a bass, and the singers aren't overwhelmed by a large orchestra. (They are overmiked, of course, but that's such a routine local fault that I'm tired of complaining about it. Perhaps everyone's hearing is so impaired by now that an all-out assault has become necessary.) And the four performers, while very different from one another, are all talented. James E. Bullard is the boy next door, open-faced and lively; Alan Swadener comes across as charmingly awkward and possesses a very pleasant tenor. Scott Ahearn is energetic and highly versatile: He can tap and play the piano and has a strong on-stage presence and a powerful voice. Joseph Torello comes across as short-sighted and bookish, but his bass notes are amazing.

The men's voices marry so well, and their sense of rhythm and harmony is so pleasing, that I'd have been quite happy to spend an evening listening to them singing Christmas carols and songs, both solo and together, unencumbered by dialogue. At one point, when Torello sang a few bars of "Sixteen Tons," he had me wishing I could hear the entire song. But no. Sparky, Frankie, Jinx and Smudge have come together through a plot that involves four innocent young guys who've been brought back to earth after dying in a car accident, and although they offer up pieces of well-loved songs, these pieces are often welded together into arrangements that are pointless and annoying.

I should know better than to attend generic shows like this. But I'd heard that Forever Plaid, the original on which Plaid Tidings is based, is a genuinely sweet and enjoyable show, and I'd had a delightful time this summer at The Taffetas, an all-girl songfest. I like being sung to by sweet-voiced people, and I'm moved by classic songs. I was hoping Plaid Tidings would provide a similarly lightweight, no-thought-necessary, sugary, fun evening. But the plot and the gags are so dumb, so obtuse and white-bread, the audience-participation sections so manipulative and the sentimentality of the show so calculated, it's simply impossible to lose yourself in the music. This is the kind of stuff my parents would have found old-fashioned.

I kept wondering if the actors felt self-conscious saying what they had to say (let alone wearing what looked like plaid pajama bottoms through the entire first act), if they were as bored as most adult ballet dancers are when rehearsing their umpteenth Nutcracker, or if they'd become inured to boredom and embarrassment by years of working in such productions. They certainly seemed game enough, and their bios contain references to quality material — The Last Five Years, The Full Monty, a season spent with a Shakespeare company. But right now, they're consigned to holiday hell.