By Michelle Pett
I learned everything I know about 1950s America from watching Happy Days and rifling through my mother's hope chest. Needless to say, I don't know much. The Taffetas, Rick Lewis's musical revue of 1950s girl groups now at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, proves to be an enjoyable education in pre-"Feminine Mystique" American womanhood - and a toe-tapping way to spend an almost unbearably cold evening.
Set in a 1950s TV studio, the show surrounds the four singing Taffeta sisters (Kaye, Donna, Peggy and Cheryl), who are making their national debut on the DuMont network's program, "Spotlight on Music." Prior to "Spotlight," the Taffetas biggest gig has been at the Moose Hall in Muncie, Indiana. They've earned their appearance on "Spotlight" with a mixture of charm, chops and chutzpah. The Taffetas' professional future hinges upon their "Spotlight" performance; if they ace this gig, Ed Sullivan will be on the horn in a heartbeat.
With a medley of hits like "Sh-Boom," "Mister Sandman," "Johnny Angel" and "Where the Boys Are," how can they lose?
The four sisters each represent a standard female comic type: the smarty pants, the sweetheart, the sexpot and the simpleton. Kaye (Teri Parker-Brown) is the brains of the operation; a multi-tasking woman before they became ubiquitous, she stage manages her sisters, their backup band and the audience, all the while belting out chestnuts like "Old Cape Cod." Sweetie pie Peggy (Adena Brumer) charms credulous men in the first row into helping out onstage; she could charm the last ten-spot out of their wallets if she tried a bit harder. Donna (Tinia Moulder) has a thing for Chevy convertibles and masked men; the less said about that the better. Finally, the lovable doof Cheryl (Bethany Moritz) may have missed the call when God was handing out brains but manages to sing like an angel anyway.
Director Michael Brindisi has crafted a fast-paced and entertaining production from a script whose plot is nearly as whisper-thin as the hankies the sisters keep tucked in their bodices. He mines the humor inherent in the sisters' plight as "country mice" in the big city without reducing their credibility as potential stars. He also gives sisterly cooperation and competition the opportunity to drive the action through some well-placed shenanigans. Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell's synchronized dance numbers, such as the skirt-swishing routine for "The Three Bells," are appealing, fresh and funny.
Costumes, props and set pieces are colored coded to help the audience keep the sisters straight. The motif of pastel blue, green, pink and yellow is repeated in everything from dresses to suitcases to microphone cords. It's also a central element in Nayna Ramey's engaging set design, with rainbows of color surrounding the playing area, mimicking the grooves on an old 45. Leading up to the stage are banks of faux TV monitors with black and white images of '50s icons like Lucy, Ozzie & Harriet, Donna Reed and, of course, Ed Sullivan. A vintage-looking TV camera broadcasts the show as it's unfolding on two working monitors embedded in the display. Flickering applause signs and a red "on the air" sign complete the tableau.
Taffetas is swimming in crinolines and Aqua Net, thanks to designers Rich Hamson and Susan Magnuson. Hamson could make a handsome living churning out dresses if '50s dances were still the rage (embroidery like that would make the girdles almost worth it). Magnuson's Gidget-like "flip" hairdos, while delightful, make me thankful that foam curlers are a thing of the past.
Brindisi's breezy staging keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, allowing The Taffetas to unfold as what it is: a nostalgic romp down memory lane. You may not find yourself quoting lines from the play afterwards, but you just might break into song while driving home.
The Taffetas January 30 - July 2004. Tuesday - Sunday evenings; matinees Wednesdays & Saturdays. Dinner and show tickets $30 - $51, depending on performance. Show only tickets also available. Call 952-934-1525 or 800-362-3515. Online at chanhassentheatres.com.