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He Couldn't Continue With 'Plaid' Forever

After eight years, Stuart Ross, the show's creator, moves on to 'Promises' of still more excitement.

May 11, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Excitement dances in Stuart Ross' eyes.

"I love creating shows," the director says. "I love being in a room with writers and actors and laughing until we can't breathe. Or getting so excited about a piece of staging that you want to shout like you've just discovered the cure for cancer."

It's a thrill he's experienced repeatedly in staging "Forever Plaid," his musical tribute to 1950s four-part guy groups, at theaters across the country. Now, he's getting a fix of it as he readies a concert version of "Promises, Promises"--starring Jason Alexander--for performances Wednesday through next Sunday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

Ross says he regrets that audiences don't experience the rehearsal-room spontaneity--something he's determined to rectify with "Promises, Promises."

With only about a week for full-cast rehearsals, he and his troupe will still be in the midst of the discovery process when performances begin. He hopes to lead the performers to the threshold of revelation, then stand back and watch. The intent, he says, is for audiences to "be there at that really great moment of artistic impulse and creation."

"He has a wonderful sense of taste, and he's really willing to play around," says "Seinfeld" co-star Alexander. But perhaps most important, given the bustle of putting the show together in such a short period of time, Ross is "very calm," Alexander says, letting out a sigh.

Musical director Peter Matz, who has worked with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Carol Burnett, says he's "really enjoying" the project because Ross "really understands music--dramatically, as well as for the song itself."

The pre-performance bustle abates for a few hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Ross' Lake Hollywood home. He is tucked into the corner of a couch with a big shaggy dog named Howie curled next to him.

Ross is a boyish-looking 44, his rumpled salt-and-pepper hair notwithstanding. He appears unguarded and unassuming, and as he chats, his sense of humor quietly announces itself. At one point, he veers off on a tangent to rhapsodize about books on tape and their civilizing effect on the Los Angeles driving experience. "I can listen to Deepak Chopra," he quips. "I can become a sane person while making a left-hand turn onto Sepulveda."

His eight years with "Forever Plaid"--creating it and then directing it from New York to L.A.--are memorialized throughout the house. There's a plaid doormat at the front entrance, an Al Hirschfeld drawing of the original cast hanging outside the dining room and an entire room devoted to memorabilia from the various productions.

Ross is enormously fond of Sparky, Frankie, Smudge and Jinx--the fresh-faced, endearingly innocent singing quartet he brought to life as Forever Plaid. But he needs some space to himself now, he says. And so, having staged what he considers to be the definitive version of the show--playing through May 25 at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills--he is focusing on new theater projects and attempting to make the leap into directing television sitcoms.

"Promises, Promises" launches the Reprise! series, modeled after New York's highly successful Encores! series, which assembles big-name entertainers for concert stagings of little-performed classic musicals. In addition to Alexander, "Promises, Promises" features Jean Smart, of "Designing Women" fame, and Alan Rachins, familiar from "L.A. Law." The series continues with "Finian's Rainbow," starring Keith Carradine and Andrea Marcovicci, Sept. 24-28; and "Wonderful Town," starring Tyne Daly, Nov. 19-23. Strong ticket response led the producers to expand the number of performances of each show from six to seven.

Based on the Billy Wilder film "The Apartment," "Promises, Promises" opened on Broadway in 1968. Neil Simon wrote the script, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned the score (including "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the title tune).

Performers will have scripts in hand, but Ross said he is striving toward a "minimal, efficient" staging that takes that into account--and even makes use of it. A tablecloth will be thrown over a reading stand for a restaurant scene, for instance, and the scripts will be held out as sun reflectors for a sun deck scene.

Alexander, who won a 1989 best actor Tony for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," will portray Chuck Baxter, an aspiring junior executive who hopes to speed his rise up the corporate ladder by lending his apartment to higher-ups for their extramarital liaisons.

"Sexism is rampant throughout the piece," Ross admits. "But if we hit it right, we are going to make a comment on it and let you look into the fact that these men are dinosaurs."

The show hints at the changes that would follow in the '70s and beyond. "We see the beginning of women being assertive in the corporate structure, in the boys' club--and there's just an inkling that it's starting to shift."

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