BY CARY GINELL
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of Forever Plaid begins this weekend and we had a chance to chat with its director, Larry Raben, prior to the start of rehearsals. This production is special because Raben was an original Plaid himself, in the nascent stages of the show as well as its heyday on Broadway.
VCOS: So, when were you with “Forever Plaid”?
LARRY: I was in the original production. I was in the original workshop in New York at the end of 1989 and opened on Broadway in 1990. I did the first year-and-a-half on Broadway. Then I did two years here in L.A. in ’91 and six months on the West End in London.
VCOS: How many different sets of Plaids have you worked with?
LARRY: Oh, gosh! I have probably been on stage with about fifty different Plaids and I’ve probably directed another fifty.
VCOS: Have the characters changed at all since you started doing this?
LARRY: As a director, I like to make it individual for each group of guys, so there are things in the script that are pretty set in stone about what the back story is for these guys. But how that becomes a living, breathing life is different, so I like for it to feel individual for each group.
VCOS: What are some of the things you’ve added?
LARRY: Well, we haven’t actually gone into rehearsals yet, but I have worked with all four of them at different times. Jeffrey Scott Parsons, who’s playing my role, Sparky, is a very wiry Sparky, which I like. There’s a lot of air under his feet at all times. Scott Dreier, who’s our Smudge, plays him like he’s got a really serious ulcer, which is something I find really funny. Roger Befeler as Frankie is just a great goofball. He’s like one of those guys that thinks he’s suave, but to the rest of the world, he’s not. And Kurtis Simmons just has a real sweetness as Jinx. Really just a great innocence that’s hard to fake.
VCOS: Do you have any special fond memories about your appearance in the show?
LARRY: I do. The very first time we put it up in front of an audience in New York, none of us had any idea how it would go or what they would respond to. Well, they laughed non-stop. We didn’t really realize how funny this fish-out-of-water would be and that the laughs would roll on top of themselves. So that was really gratifying. We also got to do a performance for the Queen when we were in London. That was really cool, and we got to meet her afterwards. It doesn’t get much better than that.
VCOS: Any memorable, unexpected things happen that come to mind?
LARRY: Many. We bring up an audience member during “Heart and Soul” so we’ve had everything. One lady, when we lifted her hands for our little bow, she popped right up and out of the top of her dress. That was unexpected! We brought up a woman one evening who we didn’t realize had special needs, but she was loving the story. And you begin to realize that once you invite someone to come into the play, the audience completely goes with it, because they knew that these guys, these characters, would take care of her. And I think that was the biggest ovation that number every got. It’s the kind of piece that can get really funny and when things go wrong, there are built-in mistakes in the show, so it can get even funnier. Or, it can take a really sweet, heartfelt turn.
VCOS: We had a marriage proposal last year at a local production of the show when one of the Plaids proposed to the stage manager during the bows.
LARRY: Wow, that’s amazing!
VCOS: How is it different directing as opposed to being in the show? And I’m thinking of your perspective of directing shows that you haven’t been in yourself.
LARRY: I love to direct shows that I’ve been closely associated with because I understand the genesis of all of the things; I understand why they’re there. But those things aren’t set in stone but it helps when you can let somebody know that this is the truth of this moment, where this grew out of a real mistake on stage and it felt very Plaid and it’s now part of the script. And I think with the show, there are a thousand good ways you can get a laugh on any given evening but there are only about a hundred really good classy ones. Sometimes the class is low class (laughs) but the smart ones, I think, are really the ones that make the show exponentially better.
VCOS: Is this satire or a tribute?
LARRY: At its root, it is a tribute, but there is a little satire of the period. It’s a love letter to it and yet it lets us look back at the Eisenhower values and we know today that that really was a big facade for society at that time. So we can revisit it, knowing that with a little innuendo in the script that there were deeper things going on without having to point them out. Just little hints here and there.
VCOS: The bigger picture is that the last day of your run of the show will be February 9, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.” Do you have anything special planned for that performance?
LARRY: Isn’t that amazing? We haven’t talked about that yet but we HAVE to have an event. Always on February 9th, those of us who were involved in the original, we would talk to each other. Last year, on February 9th, I was sitting in Studio City under a picture that showed Studio City in 1912, and it was so funny because we were out having drinks to celebrate it being February 9th and there was this photo of what California looked like 100 years ago at that point. But that anniversary, other than it just being the day the guys perished and the day the Beatles stepped onto the American stage, it really changed music forever. And that’s part of the magic of this show, because these guys wouldn’t have had careers had they not died that day. But because they’re fish out of water, they’re retro-hip. So now they have this chance, magically, in front of this audience, to rediscover that period in music.
VCOS: Did you ever think about what would have happened if there were no crash and the Beatles bombed?
LARRY: (Laughs) I’d like to think that the Plaids would have started at that airport lounge and gone all the way to “The Ed Sullivan Show”! They might have gone on to try to do Peter, Paul & Mary, but it would have been in four-part harmony.
Forever Plaid plays at the Fred Kavli Theatre beginning January 31. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar