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September 29, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — Forget plot. Forget meaning. Think party. Early '60s party. Beehive hairdos, bobby sox, "Dancing in the Streets." If the Corvette Diner is your cup of malted, you're going to love "Suds: The Rocking '60s Musical Soap Opera," which premiered at the Lyceum Space and runs through Oct. 11.

Of course, there is a text for "Suds." But it was rather hastily prepared by performers Melinda Gilb and Steve Gunderson ("The Melinda and Steve Show") and producer Bryan Scott when they were trying to figure out just what they could do with this space and four performers for three weeks. The hastiness shows--this is the dark lining on the silver cloud. "Suds" sets up a situation that starts off charmingly, but ends by settling for jokes as bridges between the songs.

Still, with more than 40 hot numbers sung by supercharged performers in a fun, well-directed, well-choreographed and well-lit show, greater sins could be forgiven.

It all begins in a three-Maytag Wash-o-rama, nicely designed by Alan Okazaki in the pastels (lime, yellow, salmon and blue) that defined the times. Fluffing, folding and sighing between laundry baskets is Cindy (Christine Sevec)--think Cinderella--a sweet young thing in a blond ponytail and saddle shoes. Cindy has had a rather rough day. Her boyfriend dumped her, her cat was run over and not a single person remembered her birthday. She decides to use her laundry to tie her neck to the inside of a washer and agitate herself to death.

But soft. What tinkling through yonder sound system breaks? It is Dee Dee (Susan Mosher), Cindy's guardian angel No. 1, a wholesome black-haired sprite who looks and dresses like a cross between Annette Funicello and the probable inspiration for her name, Sandra Dee.

Then, a bit more tinkling and we have Marge (Gilb), guardian angel No. 2, in flaming red hair, beauty mark and taut, cleavage-popping clothes. Dee Dee's advice is to be patient because "Our Day Will Come," but Marge puts her point of view on the line with "You Better Shop Around."

Such is the set-up that frustrates by what it could have been--a cross between a '60s Cinderella story and a tongue-in-cheek "It's a Wonderful Life," or even a case of dueling fairy godmothers in which the good-girl mentality slugs it out with the bad. Instead, it all just putt-putts into Nowheresville as Dee Dee gets the man of her dreams and Cindy ends up drifting inconclusively alone into the sunset.

But few people at the Friday night performance seemed to mind as Gilb, Sevec, Mosher and Gunderson as everyone else--Mr. Postman, Johnny Angel and Mystery Date--belted, crooned and kidded through hit after hit.

Individually, each has wonderful moments: Sevec sweet and plaintive in "I Don't Wanna Be a Loser," Mosher forceful in "Don't Make Me Over," Gilb cutting loose in the torchy "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and Gunderson as mellow as Johnny Mathis in "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

Collectively, their loopy sincerity captures the sensibility of an era in which these swooning love lyrics were taken with as much seriousness as Bob Dylan messages would be just a few years later.

Will Roberson's direction, like Javier Velasco's choreography and Dan Corson's lighting, is exuberant and studded with clever little touches. One moment a makeshift bridal party is carrying bouquets of quickly scooped-up laundry. Another moment the three women are dancing on top of the washing machines. The lights dance as brightly as the performers, changing swiftly from glare to flashing concert colors to romantic solo spots.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes are right on target--it's amazing how so many of those styles have come around again--as are Frank O. Bowers' wigs for the women.

Gunderson's musical and vocal arrangements performed under Doyle's musical direction prove a winning combination, particularly with the medleys and harmonies. Adam Wartnik's sound design well serves the four-man band (Doyle on piano, Todd Hunter on synthesizer, James P. Mooney on guitar and bass, and Tom Versen on percussion).

In short, if, near the end of the show, you feel the earth move under your feet, don't go fretting about any California earthquakes. It's just the vibrations of some happy, toe-tapping souls (soles?) doing the "Loco-motion."

"SUDS" By Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott. Musical and vocal arrangements by Gunderson. Musical direction by Bill Doyle. Choreography by Javier Velasco. Set by Alan Okazaki. Costumes by Gregg Barnes. Lighting by Dan Corson. Sound by Adam Wartnik. Wigs by Frank O. Bowers. Stage manager is Jennifer Shaw. With Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson, Susan Mosher and Christine Sevec. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday and 10 p.m. Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. At the Lyceum Space, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Horton Plaza, San Diego.

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