That it took three people to write Suds! makes it sound like the beginning of a joke about screwing in lightbulbs. In this case, the joke would begin, how many people does it take to assemble a totally content-free theatrical experience set in a Laundromat that lasts two hours and incorporates nearly fifty of the best-known songs of the '60s and early '70s? Fortunately for the California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro, it takes just one to direct such a show: veteran high-kicker and choreographer Dottie Lester-White.
If it seemed that Lester-White already had directed the fluffiest, most sticky-sweet show possible last year with her production of No, No, Nanette at the Dean Lesher Center, that was only because Suds! had not yet come spilling out of its overfilled washing machine. Lester-White is an old hand at musicals, and under her direction California Conservatory turns out a solidly built if ultimately empty production of a show that seems calculated to cash in on boomer nostalgia.
Suds! is a barely veiled excuse to hang a whole bunch of the period's best-loved songs off a slender plot, much like the ornaments that dangle from the tiny Christmas tree in heroine Cindy's Laundromat. And plot's too strong a word for the show's story, which is ostensibly about good-natured naïf Cindy and her search for wuv, twu wuv in a town without pity. Cindy is cheerful -- real cheerful -- particularly since it's her birthday and she's the happiest girl in the world. She loves her job, her cat, and her pen-pal boyfriend in Baltimore. "I wish everybody was as happy as I am," she tells the audience earnestly, "and I hope those castaways on Gilligan's Island finally get home!"
Cindy's day takes a direct hit, however, when she gets several pieces of bad news via the post, including the stunner that said boyfriend is dumping her for someone with better penmanship. So she decides to kill herself in an absurd way. Not one but three guardian angels disguised as women with laundry show up to stop her. Apparently suicides usually get only one guardian angel; why Cindy gets three is never made clear, except perhaps that you get better harmony with more angels. Their method -- if they can be said to have one -- consists of sniping at one another and singing pop tunes taken entirely, sometimes charmingly, out of context. They're pretty inept as guardian angels, so it takes a long time for them to get our heroine back to her usual bouncy, nonsuicidal state -- about twenty minutes and three or four songs too long.
The strain is no fault of the actors, all of whom sing well and deliver amusing performances. It's just that the plot is so painfully thin that it almost seems pointless to have one at all. Why not just perform a revue of the songs, complete with Lester-White's well-choreographed dances? Why did this have to be made into a play? For example, in the second act, perhaps because the writers realized that not much was really happening, a subplot is introduced where one of the guardian angels precipitously falls in love with and agrees to marry the man who is apparently her supervisor, and suddenly the story centers on the new relationship, young love, and how there's hope for romance after all. Setting aside for a moment the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a wedding cake, it feels like the writers had a bunch of nuptially oriented songs ("Chapel of Love," "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry") that they wanted to work in somehow, so they brought in a new character, made him inexplicably attractive, and away we go.
That said, at least the construction of the work is clever, and some of the combinations of songs are very well done here, such as when angels DeeDee and Marge interlace "Always Something There to Remind Me" and "Don't Make Me Over" or "Respect" and "You Don't Own Me." Lester-White cast good singers; Stephanie Keller (ditzy DeeDee) and Jeanette Manor (older, brassier Marge) as the first two angels harmonize beautifully and argue convincingly. Jen McDearman's Cindy isn't as much of a belter as the other two, but her voice is sweet and graceful. Ron Pickett (listed in the program as Everyone Else) takes a little longer to come up to speed, singing-wise; he was barely audible doing "Secret Agent Man" the night I went, but the numbers he sang in a higher register (especially when he used his cartoony voice) were much better. All four performers also handle the dancing and physical comedy well, and Lester-White wisely keeps them moving around and never lets the stage action get too static.
Other nice things about this production are the excellent offstage live accompaniment, the set design, and various nifty little blocking touches, like a towel being used to indicate a heartbeat, or the line "sock it to me" being emphasized with, well, socks (sounds goofy, but it's cute). Set designer Ric Koller clearly paid attention to the period, down to making sure that the Christmas lights strung around the Laundromat were historically correct. And stage manager Christine Plowright gets a shout-out for heroic prop-herding; the stage antics require every washing machine, foundation garment, and laundry basket to conceal a panoply of items, and there didn't appear to be a false step or a single lost sock. Malcolm Carruthers came up with a pretty lighting effect to herald the angels singing (or squabbling, in some cases), and the costumes (particularly Marge's beehive hairdo, complete with a brooch accent) add to the general hilarity.
What the show lacks in depth, it certainly contains in breadth of songs. Everyone's here, from the Fab Four to the Godfather of Soul and Burt Bacharach. Especially Burt Bacharach. It's a walk-out-humming show, mostly because there's certainly very little dialogue getting in the way of the songs, and the characterizations are deliberately cartoonish.
The consensus at intermission was that people under a certain age might not get this show; how many people, for example, are going to recognize the music for the game "Mystery Date"? Not to mention that youngsters might miss all the exploding Corvair jokes. On the other hand, it's as clean and sunny as a detergent ad. The closest thing to an off-color comment might be Marge marveling that Cindy is so upset about "some dork [she'd] never played backseat bingo with." Otherwise Suds! is completely family-friendly, unlike some of those jokes about screwing in lightbulbs.
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