The always-popular musical-revue genre relies on barely-there plot structures in order for the selected songs to carry the show. And plots don’t get much simpler than the gimmick that drives Suds, which closes the summer season at Cortland Repertory Theater.
Subtitled “The Rocking 60s Musical Soap Opera,” Suds creators Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott spin a fanciful tale about Washerama clothes-folder Cindy (Lilli Babb), who plans to celebrate her happy birthday. (A radio broadcast says that Cindy shares the same birth date with Kitty Carlisle and Alan Ladd.) Alas, Cindy’s pen-pal boyfriend turns out to be a Hoboken heel who has given her the heave-ho with a Dear John letter. It seems he has found a new gal with better penmanship.
Will she wash that man right out of her hair? No, Cindy instead decides to end it all, courtesy of strangulation by the spin-cycle washer agitator. To her rescue comes two squabbling guardian angels: the inexperienced Dee Dee (Hannah Zilber) and the brassy, tough-talking veteran Marge (Rachel Valencich).
From there, theatergoers can imagine It’s a Wonderful Life yoked to a jukebox crammed with girl-group platters that matter. More than 40 solid-gold musical earwigs from the golden age of AM radio are on hand, all of them belted out with sincere gusto.
Suds’ framework does allow for some clever cruisin’ down memory lane, as audiences will even anticipate certain song cues before they are warbled. There are some surprises along the way, such as a dominatrix flourish for Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and comic moments that are connected to the old TV commercial for the Mystery Date gameboard. You have to be an Ann-Margret aficionado, however, to parse the erotic significance of the reference, “He took me to see Kitten with a Whip 17 times!”
The hit parade hews closer to standards such as “The Locomotion,” “Where the Boys Are” and many others amid the shoop-shoops, sha-la-las and doo-wop ditties. Yet the Suds creators also play favorites. There is a medley of wonderful tracks from the Burt Bacharach-Hal David catalog (think “Walk On By” and “Don’t Make Me Over”), songs that boasted a level of musical sophistication that was miles above most of the other Top 40 chart hits during the 1960s. And the second act features a welcome mini-salute to Petula Clark and the swinging British big-band sound.
The comic gags range from Clorox to Corvairs to Cuban crises, all of it guided with quicksilver timing by director-choreographer Robin Levine. Indeed, some of the high-stepping hoofing leaves the three female leads breathlessly keeping up with the pace, yet they play their roles with an affectionate verve.
Lilli Babb manages to make Cindy’s innocence more appealing than cloying, even when her character’s head is stuck in the washer. Hannah Zilber likewise gets plenty of comic mileage from her ditzy blonde Dee Dee, while Rachel Valencich scores as redhead bombshell Marge, bedecked with a bouffant hairdo and Capris. On the fringes lurks Tony Coslett, who incarnates an amusing string of male suitors as well as the mysterious Mrs. Halo.
Costume designer Jimmy Johansmeyer opts for pastel togs in shades of turquoise, while scenic designer Shelly Barrish offers telling Laundromat details such as boxes of Duz soap flakes, dryers with padlocks and washers in drab hues of yellow and orange. Producing artistic director Kerby Thompson stated during the introduction that Cortland Repertory has notched its “second highest-attended season ever.” With shows like the bouncy, bubbly and buoyant Suds, it’s easy to understand why.