By Philip Pearce

A NICE BIG HELPING of musical nostalgia bubbled into Santa Cruz last weekend. It’s called Suds and the opening night audience was weighted heavily in favor of baby boomers.  They weren’t looking for Lloyd Webber hydraulic scenic effects or Sondheim irony. Whatever our ages, we’d come to the Colligan to re-experience a ditsy world where Supremes-styled ladies do-wah-diddy in satin evening dresses and there’s fancy pelvis action from Elvis or a reasonable facsimile. Jewel Theatre Company obliged and served up a non-stop musical race down memory lane.  

“Suds” is subtitled “The Rocking Sixties Musical Soap Opera” because the story, such as it is, takes place in a “laundromat, in the early 1960s, One Fine Day, Anywhere U.S.A.” As soon as you arrive, Steve Gerlach’s massive set hits you between the eyes with coin operated washers, plastic laundry baskets and an upstage panel of side-loading dryers, all of it framed in gigantic full color ads for long-lost products like Oxydol, Rinso and 20 Mule Team Borax.  

The laundromat’s manager is a cute girl named Cindy, played with lots of bubbly energy and a touch of pathos by the beguiling Brittany Law. Cindy checks in for work full of hope and joy.  It’s her birthday, so (“Please Mr. Postman”) that’s surely going to mean a present and maybe even a proposal from her pen pal boyfriend. But her hopes are dashed (“The End of the World”) when she’s notified she’s got some overdue taxes, then receives a phone call to say her cat Fluffy has been run over by a sports car, then opens a letter from the boyfriend saying he’s dumping her in favor of someone with better penmanship.

To her rescue come two unlikely guardian angels. One is Dee Dee, acted by the bright and funny Lee Ann Payne, who also created the sixties choreography. Dee Dee is a dreamy-eyed, upbeat  angelic intern, chock full of bright ideas (“Lollypops and Roses”) for cheering up the suicidal Cindy. The other heavenly messenger is a seasoned seraph named Marge, played to the hilt by the miraculous and versatile Diana Torres Koss. Marge is a post-Burton Liz Taylor look-alike with a Rosalind Russell working girl attitude toward her heavenly career and a built-in contempt for trainee angels like soppy Dee Dee. 

The two of them bicker and battle but at the same time spend their nine-to-five working day mentoring, cajoling and plotting Cindy into replacing the ex pen pal with a more suitable Mister Right. Sprightly and resourceful, Nick Gallego acts, sings, dances and changes costume as half a dozen different guys who figure, one way or another, in Cindy’s emotional rehab. And that is all you need to know about the story.

Because the rest of the “book” is a jokey clothes line of small events on which the show’s creators, Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott, hang plot points, one by one, using songs from the sixties. There’s minimal dialogue. As soon as a fresh problem, situation or relationship pops up, Cindy and/or the Angels and/or their latest male visitor sing about it with the abrupt head jerks, hand calisthenics, hip swirls and cigarette-grinding dance footwork of 1960s pop idols.   

Suds is an inspired piece of period musical research. The cast of four work their way through 49 songs from the sixties, some memorable, some long forgotten, but each artfully slotted into a moment of conflict, discovery or mood shift as the paper thin plot runs its course.     

From a platform above the whirling dryers, musical director Ben Dorfan joins up with Matt Bohn, Zack Olsen, Tennessee O’Hanlon and Jeff Adams to provide slick sixties musical backing. Heart wrenching ballads like “I Don’t Wanna Be a Loser” and “Say a Little Prayer” are staged and sung with a restrained irony that’s a tribute to Shaun Carroll’s astute direction.   Authentically over-the-top material gets broader treatment. When Dee Dee finds her own Mr Right and sings about it “Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry,” she does it with the cutesy and smirking microphone mannerisms of way too many wannabe Tammies and Gidgets.    Funniest of all is the guardian angels’ strenuous opening duet (“The) Loco-Motion”) sung while they watch Cindy struggle to self destruct using a scarf and a washing machine spin cycle.  Marge and Dee Dee give the number loads of appreciative pep in the belief that Cindy’s desperate gyrations are the slick moves of an exciting new disco dance.   

It’s not subtle, it’s sometimes predictable, but there are plenty of hilarious moments. The cast are top notch and the music’s gushy or wistful or explosive or all three. So spray your beehive, lace up your blue suede shoes and rock on down to the Tannery Arts Center on River Street before Suds closes on December 2nd. 

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo