Stage & Dance

New-gen cast tackles oldies as Studio Players puts on 'Plaid' again

As The Plaids, Justin Miller, left, Ryan Hornung, Connor Hall and Zack Damron perform a tribute to crooner Perry Como.
As The Plaids, Justin Miller, left, Ryan Hornung, Connor Hall and Zack Damron perform a tribute to crooner Perry Como. Lexington Herald-Leader

At ages 16 to 23, the four guys in Studio Players' production of Stuart Ross's musical Forever Plaid probably aren't even performing the music of their parents' generation. Grandparents' possibly.

The show draws on classic vocal quartet tunes of the 1950s to tell the story of an ensemble, The Plaids, who died in an accident before achieving the fame — and getting their "boss plaid tuxedoes" — for which they were surely destined. But even though the actors are a few generations removed from the music they are performing, Studio Players' Plaids understand the appeal of the show.

"It's the nostalgia of those old songs, bringing back the memories associated with them and acts on The Ed Sullivan Show and associated with old-timey jingles and songs like 16 Tons and all those old, great, classic songs," says Ryan Hornung, who at 23 is the oldest member of the cast. "You don't get to hear them anymore, especially hear them live."

The youngest cast member, Connor Hall, 16, says, "Any time you can take someone back to their childhood, music triggers a lot of emotions. When you can trigger someone to remember high school, to remember their childhood, that's special."

Forever Plaid is a special show to Studio Players, which first presented it in 1997 — before a few current cast members had started kindergarten — and was so successful with it that the show was restaged during the summer of '98. This production's director, Scott Turner, and music director, Jessica Slaton, say that puts a little pressure on them.

"When you're working with the staff that did it, and you know your audience saw it, then you know you're going to have the comparison with those productions that were done in the same house," Slaton says.

Turner adds that Plaid follows an extremely successful string of summer musicals at Studio, including Always, Patsy Cline in 2009 and last summer's The Marvelous Wonderettes, which references Forever Plaid.

"How high can you set the bar?" Slaton says. "And can we reach it? I think so."

Turner knows that oldies jukebox musicals like Plaid are frequently dismissed as fluff, but he says, "As a work, it is not respected appropriately.

"It is much more difficult than it appears. These guys have a huge task every single night, and there's nothing easy about the show. The props are not easy. The timing of the dialogue — it can fall into schmaltz if you're not careful, so easily. All it takes is the wrong beat at the wrong time, and it can fall apart. It is like watching a musical-theater tightrope."

One thing Slaton and the actors say is generational is singing style. The quartet really had to orient itself to a smoother style far from today's ornamented, melisma-soaked pop styles.

"It was having to change from this single, 'I'm a soloist' singing to 'how does my voice fit in with these others to create these beautiful melodies and emote what the song is saying?'" Slaton says.

In addition to familiarizing themselves with the singing styles of the past, the foursome had to become a convincing group, with ties strong enough to bring their characters together in the afterlife.

"I've made three great friends on this show," Hall says, to which Hornung replies, "Aw, that's touching, man."

Hall adds, "Well the paper's here, so don't get used to it."

The ribbing betrays a camaraderie that could manifest itself in other endeavors. Asked about the potential for a show 30 or 40 years down the road that might trigger their memories, the guys riff on Lady Gaga's Poker Face and Taio Cruz's Dynamite.

Hornung concludes, "We should write that play."

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