Monday, August 8, 2011

Suds: the Rocking 60's Musical Soap Opera

by LaDawn Edwards

Old Creamery Theatre Company opened its 40th season to an appreciative house Friday night with a Main Stage production of Suds: A Rocking 60’s Musical Soap Opera.
I don’t think folks came for the show itself (which I’d never heard of), the washer-dominated set of the Suds-o-Rama Laundromat, or the house band (since the accompaniment was prerecorded.) No, the driving force that put the people in the seats, and on their feet for the final bows, was the return of Molly Hammer.

Music lovers who saw either Old Creamery run of Always. . .Patsy Cline will remember the marvelous melodies she spun and the sincere connection she created with audiences. Given that fan base, I can understand why director Sean McCall cast her, somewhat improbably, as the naively romantic fluff and fold girl Cindy, who (in true 60s soap opera fashion) was dumped by her pen pal boyfriend on her birthday.

Adaptable T.J. Besler, who plays the postman, a very Elvis-like washer repairman, a pocket-protector salesman, pipe-gesturing Fred McMurray clone from My Three Sons and everybody else, starts off the hits by prompting “Mr. Postman.” I recognize that every plot, however thin, requires plot exposition so we know who’s who, but when the bad news started flowing and Besler’s silly costumes and overdone mugging seemed to increase in intensity I found myself wondering impatiently ‘When’s the next song coming up?’

Cue the guardian angels! Dee Dee (Deborah Kennedy, back for her 11th season) and Marge (Jessica Brandish) swoop in with towering laundry baskets to interrupt a halfhearted suicide attempt while doing “The Loco-Motion.” They stick around to offer self esteem pep talks and cheesy advice like “I’d buy another ticket to the Tunnel of Love if the right guy came along.” Costumer Marquetta Senters deserves special kudos for Dee Dee’s gold lame circle skirt cocktail dress with pearls that is worthy of Donna Reed’s laundry day. Marge’s outfit featured the black Capri pants regularly seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show and a fuzzy red top with rhinestones straight out of Laverne & Shirley. Cindy’s pink plaid dress with full can-can slip reminded me of square dancing, but she is no style icon, so it worked.

Once established that Cindy needs to get a life, the duets, trios and—yes, eventually—close harmony quartets, come thicker and faster. Dolling up Cindy for her “Mystery Date” was the moment I decided I was glad I’d come—as the guardian angels took a turn as fairy godmothers a la Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, trading her canvas sneakers for high-heeled Mary Janes and slipping the birthday girl into a sequined cardigan. The second act started strong with a smoking post-party “Town without Pity” and built from there.

I loved Besler in “Secret Agent Man”—all gold and white tux and 007 super confident lady’s man! As Wolfman Jack used to say, ‘the hits just keep on coming,’ including plenty of Detroit sound like “Chapel of Love,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Walk on By.” Brandish bares her soul in “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” demonstrating that she can hold her own with the two equity actresses she’s partnered with. I expect this young lady to be going places far beyond Amana, Iowa.

I’ll confess that I personally experienced only the last four years of the 60’s, but several beloved music teachers, my mother’s record collection and—let’s face it—the Dirty Dancing soundtrack kept them alive for me. A few deep cuts that I hadn’t heard outside of late night “Greatest Hits” commercials include: “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Big Man” and “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” all delivered admirably by Kennedy.

I would guess the Molly Hammer fans may have been disappointed that Cindy didn’t have more big numbers to showcase her beautiful voice. She did a great job with a comedic “These Boots Are Made for Walking” in galoshes, but most of her solos were montages or excerpts that frustratingly stopped just as the audience was getting into them.

My gripes here are with the play itself, not the performances. The director might have trimmed the first half hour to speed up the time machine transporting his audience, but in the end Suds put us in the sound environment of 60’s America, right where we want to be.

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