Back in the pre-digital age, before everyone’s earbuds were plugged into their own personal playlists, remember what it used to be like to hear some random oldie on the car radio that just made you grin? Going to Suds is kind of like that.
Subtitled “The Rocking ’60s Musical Soap Opera,” it’s the new Jewel Theatre Company production now playing at the Colligan Theater.
No, you don’t get to hear the original recordings, where you know every lick by heart. And, yes, the idea behind the show—to weave together nearly 50 rock classics (OK, a few are a little less than classic) into a loose narrative about a teenage girl looking for love—is an obvious attempt to create a crowd-pleaser without having to bother writing a bunch of new material. But the JTC production is full of fun anyway, thanks to a quartet of powerhouse vocalists who know how to sell the songs we love.
Conceived in San Diego by Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson, and Bryan Scott, this bouncy musical comedy made its off-Broadway debut in 1988, and has been a popular staple of regional theater ever since. Its only set is a laundromat, decorated here by Scenic Designer Steve Gerlach with giant, colorful murals of vintage Cheer boxes and other soap products. Shaun Carroll directs with the upbeat energy the show demands.
Employee Cindy (Brittany Law), is a fresh-faced ingenue having the worst day of her life, even though it’s her birthday. Among other things, her pen-pal boyfriend has just dumped her. She tries to end it all (wrapping a pair of capris around her neck and dangling one end into a washing machine on the spin cycle—sort of an upside-down hanging), but her plans are thwarted by a couple of guardian angels. Marge (Diana Torres Koss) is worldly and sarcastic. Dee-Dee (Lee Ann Payne) is more of a rah-rah type. But in between sniping at each other, they set out to convince Cindy, via the Tao of pop songs, that life is worth living and true love exists.
That’s about it for plot. But the always watchable Koss and Payne, both great singers, are two of JTC’s most reliable performers—and they deliver, especially in their big solos. (Koss’ “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” is epic.) Payne also staged the lively choreography. Law, too, has a big, bright voice; these three divas probably don’t even need to be miked.
Rounding out the show’s quartet is Nick Gallegos as everybody else, meaning every man the women encounter. He’s a riot in a variety of guises and personas, riffing on Elvis and Paul Lynde in walk-on bit parts like Mr. Postman, Mr. Right, and Johnny Angel. A five-person combo in matching powder-blue jackets that marches in to take its place in the upstage balcony keeps the action flowing with familiar downbeats and song cues.
And while the songs are familiar (glance down your row and see how many knees are bouncing up and down as the tunes roll out), the inventive way they’re strung together in service to the minimalist libretto gives the show its pop. “Wishing and Hoping” segues into “Tell Him” as a call to romantic action. The angels burst into “The Loco-Motion” when they mistake Cindy’s flailing away at the washing machine for a new dance craze.
The songwriters represented on the show’s hit parade are a diverse bunch, from Burt Bacharach to James Brown to Johnny Rivers to Otis Redding to Lennon and McCartney. Most of these tunesmiths are male (with Carole King and Phil Spector alumna Ellie Greenwich among the exceptions), but they were often writing for female performers like Lesley Gore, the Ronettes, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, and the Supremes, who made gigantic hits out of them—simple (and catchy) songs of heartbreak, yearning, hope, and swoony romance.
In other words, perfect material for this lightweight laundromat operetta.
The Jewel Theatre Company production of ‘Suds’ plays through Dec. 2 at the Colligan Theater at The Tannery. Call 425-7506, or visit JewelTheatre.net.