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`FOREVER PLAID' PAYS NIFTY TRIBUTE TO '50S

Don't go into "Forever Plaid" looking for any heavy, esoteric messages.

Tennessee Williams had nothing to do with this script. Neither did Wendy Wasserstein. Not even Shakespeare or Neil Simon.No, the lengthy list of writers with their hands in this show range everywhere from Sam Cooke, Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser to Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Al Jolson, Paul Francis Webster, Sammy Fain and even Alan Arkin (did you know he helped compose "Day-o"?).

If you have fond memories of gathering around the old Mag-na-vox 21-inch TV on a Sunday night watching "The Ed Sullivan Show" or if you remember prom night . . . or Johnny Ray . . . or the night you tore the goal posts down - then this nifty tribute to the close-knit "guy groups" of the '50s and '60s is right down your Tin Pan Alley.

This is not a dialogue-driven show or a scenery-driven show - it's a solidly entertaining song-driven show. Although, tucked among the nearly 30 songs are nice touches of clever humor and a linguine-thin plot (just enough so that, by the time "Forever Plaid" ends, you really love these guys).

Sure, stepbrothers Sparky and Jinx and their two best buddies, Frankie and Smudge, are more than a little nervous when - after being legally dead for 31 years - they're suddenly plunked down through a hole in the ozone to have one last chance at doing the gig they were en route to back on Feb. 9, 1964. That's when their Mercury convertible was broadsided by a busload of Catholic girls headed for the big "Ed Sullivan Show" debut of that other quartet, the Beatles.

With an energetic, tightknit cast (that sounds as though, maybe, it really was rehearsing back in 1956 in Smudge's basement), "Forever Plaid" will have you rummaging through your old 45s - those funny little fellas with the big hole in the middle - in search of some golden oldies.

The cast is nothing less than sheer perfection - Gilles Chiasson as Jinx, Stephen Wallem as Sparky, Neil Nash as Frankie and Mark Martino as Smudge.

When they're in their individual spotlights performing solos, they're great. But when they mix their harmony (techniques picked up through the Osterizer Method of blending, pureeing and chopping their notes), "Plaid" sends you right back into the golden era of the Crew Cuts and the Four Freshmen, et al.

Kudos must also go to the two on-stage musicians, pianist James Followell and bass player Daryl Cornutt (allegedly "Uncle Chester").

The behind-the-scenes talent is obvious, too, starting with Stuart Ross, who wrote, directed and choreographed not only the original off-Broadway production but subsequent editions as well, and the late James Raitt, credited with the smooth musical arrangements.

Ross' choreography is hilariously " '50-ish," slowly progressing from stiff to loose, depicting the Plaids' initial stage fright and their growing comfort with the audience.

Jane Reiseman's lighting, Neil Peter Jampolis' set and Debra Stein's costuming were also superb.

I would be hard-put to single out any particular highlights. It all depends on individual musical tastes. Certainly Chiasson's knockout version of "Cry," Stephen Wallem's delightful "Perfidia," Mark Martino's show-stopping "Rags to Riches" and Neil Nash's terrific "Chain Gang" would go on this list, along with the hilarious send-up of "The Ed Sullivan Show" (encapsulated in three minutes and 11 seconds of jugglers, plate-twirlers, trained dogs, puppets, opera singers and fire eaters - all whirling around Chiasson gamely performing "Lady of Spain" on the accordion).

And, running through the entire show, there IS a message: You cannot achieve success without taking a few risks.

The four Plaids risk it all - and wind up with an audience cheering loudly.