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Soap Dish 

by Michael Bowen & r & Suds got me all lathered up in places, but there were parts where I still felt unclean. The songs of the 1960s are mostly irresistible, there are several episodes of inventive movement and campy fun, and there's a kind of suspense involved in figuring out what excuse the writers will come up with for inserting the next '60s song.

On the other hand, the cast isn't vocally strong, the four-piece band often overwhelms the singers, sight gags often descend into silliness, and too much stage business is too busily trying to support too many song snippets. While occasionally satisfying, Suds (through Aug. 26 at CenterStage) is intermittently fun.

"The rocking '60s musical soap opera" is a jukebox musical created in by a quartet of writers led by Steve Gunderson. The suitably goofy premise: Cindy's actually looking forward to working at the Laundromat on her birthday until Mr. Postman brings news that her parents have disappeared and her boyfriend has left her. Even her cat has died.

Danae Lowman, so impressive as Louise in the Patty Duke Gypsy at the Civic back in late 2003, is less so as Cindy here. She overdoes the comic plaintiveness of the opening exposition, lengthening the lull before all those Top 40 tunes wash over us. She does have a nice turn, however, performing "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" by doing go-go girl gyrations on top of the washing machines. And it may be a cheap sight gag, but the vision of Lowman upside down in a washing machine, her upended legs flailing amid piles and piles of frilly underwear, really was quite funny.

Lowman and Angela Snyder (as Marge, a Laundromat customer) are probably the strongest members of the cast vocally, but even they can't carry solos like "Mr. Postman." For one thing, the band is out-shouting them. (Somebody's got to work out the sonic balance for this show.) Still, the onstage quartet manages some fine harmonizing on "Where the Boys Are" -- helped by Swan Laws' lighting and because, unlike much of this show, it's performed simply.

Director Jessica McLaughlin has provided so much choreography that perhaps it interferes with the singers' breathing. Sometimes there's just too much stage business. Several sequences, though, are well choreographed, with dancers back to back and wiggling, hugging themselves, then extending their pleading arms -- all your favorite '60s gesticulations.

It's a cute device during "Always Something There To Remind Me" to have Beth Black as DeeDee sniff her boyfriend's dirty laundry, nicely undercutting the saccharine lyrics. And during "Secret Agent Man," Buddy Todd cleverly grabs one of the women's legs and "talks" into a shoe phone. (Todd also turns in a good imitation of an elderly Swedish lady who arrives for a quick fluff and fold.) Four sets of hands cup four sets of knees during "Tell him, tell him, you're never gonna leave him."

For "Goin' to the Chapel," Cindy may be an eager maid of honor and the bridal couple may be all smiles, but there's Marge over on the left, counterbalancing them with her cynicism. Snyder is hilarious at singing a sarcastic "sha-la-la-la." During this particular wedding, some of the rice is tossed joyfully, and some of it is hurled vindictively.

Suds offers snippets (or more) of 51 songs of the kind advertised in Time-Life commercials on late-night TV, with Neil Sedaka and Burt Bacharach heavy on the play list.

Take "Walk on By," for example. Are we so used to the recorded versions that any live performance will seem like a comedown? But then in the familiar whiplash effect of shows like this, we're treated to only two verses of "Walk on By" before it's time to rush on by, right into the next tune.

At least set designer Jason Laws contributes a Laundromat in bright colors complete with movable washing machines (in green, peach and purple) that actors can fall into and climb out of.

Dee Finan's costumes add to the fun. Snyder appears in an orange bouffant fright wig and buxom leopard-skin top; Lowman's Cindy gets all dressed up for a big date in a sparkly blue dress complete with tiara and (a comically tasteless) fuchsia feather boa.

The CenterStage dinner theater experience includes your choices of entrees -- prime rib, salmon, trout or game hen -- prepared by Banquet Chef Richard Comard. And in keeping with the '60s theme, the dessert choices offered at intermission are banana splits and strawberry shortcake.

In the end, this musical bar of Zest cleanses and refreshes, but there's still some unsightly material accumulating in the soap dish.

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