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Music, vocals make Civic’s ’60s romp ‘Suds’ worth it

There’s an old story about the first time Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson heard the Phil Spector-produced classic “Be My Baby.” He was reportedly driving around when the song came over his radio, and he had to pull the car over because he was so in awe of it. Lyrically and thematically, “Be My Baby” is one of the simplest songs imaginable, but with the way it’s been recorded and performed it becomes almost anthemic.

That song, and Wilson’s obsession with it, neatly encapsulates ’60s pop as a whole: It was an era when emotions ran high, melodies were sugar-coated, every love was everlasting and every heartbreak irreversible, and it might have been the last time that mainstream radio was as consistently accessible as it was transcendent.

The protagonist of “Suds,” a ’60s jukebox musical written by Steve Gunderson, Bryan Scott and Melinda Gilb, would be right at home in a Shangri-Las song. Her name is Cindy (Krista Vaughn), and her birthday is derailed by a series of unfortunate events: Not only has her cat been run over by a Corvair, but her pen-pal boyfriend (whom she’s never met) breaks up with her for someone with more appealing handwriting.

Cindy decides she’s going to end it all, and after drinking bleach and cutting her wrists fail to do the trick, she ties one end of a sweater around her neck and the other to the agitator in one of her washing machines (it’ll give her, she says, “a permanent case of ring around the collar”).

But two brassy guardian angels, Marge (Phedre Burney-Quimby) and Dee Dee (Beth Raleigh), show up and stop her from killing herself. They first encounter her with her legs kicking about in the washer, and they initially mistake her flailing for the Loco-Motion.

Perhaps that illustrates the wild, campy sensibilities of “Suds,” which premiered this weekend at Spokane’s Civic Theatre, and it combines the cornball jokes of Frankie and Annette’s beach party movies with John Waters-style kitsch.

Dee Dee and Marge, who have mistakenly been sent on the same assignment by the Man Upstairs, have to turn Cindy’s romantic prospects around. But while they attempt to set her up with Mr. Right, an unexpected love triangle develops when an undercover angel (Charles Fletcher, in the show’s funniest performance) who has a romantic past with Marge suddenly becomes enamored with Dee Dee.

As a play, “Suds” is pretty flimsy – the story goes on a little long and grasps at a few emotional beats it doesn’t quite earn. But the music makes it worth seeing, and the songbook features several dozen great pop and doo-wop tunes. Songs like “Please Mr. Postman,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Tell Him” are nice time capsules, while gems like “We Can Work It Out,” “Respect,” “Walk on By” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” are in another league entirely. An early medley featuring several Burt Bacharach-Hal David ballads, including “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Always Something There to Remind Me” is the musical highlight of the show, and the voices of Vaughn, Raleigh and Burney-Quimby beautifully complement one another.

The Civic’s production, as directed by Delvone Bullis, takes on the feel of a breathless party, the kind where everyone’s had one too many glasses of champagne and the oldies station is cranked to full volume. At the Friday night premiere, that madcap tone was established before the show had even started, when Bullis asked the studio theater audience to do the wave with him. Later on, the actors engaged the entire front row in Cindy’s birthday festivities.

Even hard-hearted cynics (myself included) will likely be won over. It’s a lot of goofy, bubblegum fun, and don’t be surprised if you feel compelled to dig out some of your old 45s as soon as you get home.

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