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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Suds’ Returns to San Diego, Polished to Near-Perfection : SAN DIEGO COUNTY

They whooped. They whistled. They hollered and clapped and stomped. “Suds” was back at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage on Thursday night, and the full-capacity crowd was clearly happy to see it.

Not to mention the fans waiting in the wings: the closing date of “Suds” is Feb. 12, but no one at the box office, where as much as $11,000 worth of sales have been made in one day, will be surprised if the show is extended.

Still, the question remains: Has the show’s brief off-Broadway sojourn spoiled the little show that sprouted in a Rep workshop, bloomed at the Old Globe and strutted its stuff for three months in New York, with a side trip to Canada thrown in for good measure?

Nah. This slender, but surprisingly tensile story about a young girl who finds love and wisdom, and 50 knock-em-dead songs from the ‘60s, in a fluff and fold Laundromat is better than ever.

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After more than a year of working on the show, there’s the feeling that “Suds,” at last, is close to being in as final a form as it’s going to get. A good thing, too, since the producers are entertaining visions of a national tour.

Now the story--silkily directed by Will Roberson--is finally as clear as the vocals. The show’s four crackerjack performers wear the parts they created like second skins.

Cindy (Christine Sevec) is a poor little Cinderella type, having the most pathetic of birthdays--her pen-pal boyfriend dumped her and her cat died--when she is visited by not one but two guardian angels.

These, however, are no ordinary sisters of mercy. Dee Dee (Susan Mosher) is an Annette Funicello, Sandra Dee, “That Girl!” sort of caricature rolled up in one. She wants to teach Cindy about how to land a man and live happily ever after. Her songs, naturally, are of the “I Will Follow Him” and “Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry"--her show stopper--variety.

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Marge (Melinda Gilb) is an altogether different kick in the Capris--her style of dressing, along with tight, low-cut blouses and spiked patent leather heels. She’s a career angel, and her theme song is “Respect,” with a couple of torchy “Town Without Pity” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” numbers thrown in.

Steve Gunderson gives the women plenty to practice their wiles on as Everyone Else, from a bewildered Maytag repairman, to a cute guy in the Laundromat, to Johnny Angel--the angels’ guardian angel who is disguised, at one point, as a dumpy Mrs. Halo in frowzy bathrobe and curlers.

It’s not hard to believe that this would add up to a special birthday for Cindy. This would add up to a special birthday for anyone.

The show itself is like a party with the flood of music (arranged by Gunderson) and lights (Kent Dorsey), dancing (Javier Velasco) and clever costumes (Gregg Barnes) that keep the Laundromat theme going with blouses made out of “Suds” towels, stoles out of a string of sponges, a skirt made out of a “Suds” laundry bag and, at one point, a guitar from a bottle of detergent with a very long cap.

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Finally, too, they’ve got a dramatic first act break now: the arrival of Melvin Dudman as Cindy’s dreadful Mystery Date. The curtain falls on the “Will she or won’t she go with him?” question. The only problem is that the show forgets to deal with that decision when the second act starts.

So, maybe there’s one kink left.

The “Suds” saga, the story behind the story, is part of what plays so well to local audiences. After all, this started when Gilb, Gunderson and co-creator Bryan Scott were offered a free slot at the Rep’s Lyceum Space out of friendship and, on the spur of the moment, came up with this bit of fluff and fold to fit that space.

It wasn’t enough of a story to charm New York audiences, who traveled to “Suds” through the chilly, dangerous streets of the steely city, looking for something that would justify the trouble they took to get there.

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With the right spots, this show could and should go on to have a nice shelf life. And who knows, if they negotiate the rights for 50 more songs, we may have “Suds II” on our soapy hands some day.


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