The 1950s were anything but fabulous. The figure of Senator Joseph McCarthy loomed over the American landscape, instilling a sense of fear that pervaded every cranny, stifling independent thought and creating a culture so sanitized and asexual that it seemed wrapped in plastic. Men wore their hair militaristically short, and beards and mustaches were considered subversive. The ideal of feminine beauty was regimented. Hair was teased and tortured into place with curlers and spray; backsides were flattened by tight girdles and breasts shaped into high, hard cones beneath form-fitting sweaters. (Although the feminists never really did adopt bra-burning as a symbol, you can see why the rumor started!) Academics were afraid to question the establishment, students to read certain books. Food was mass-produced and tasteless, with housewives brainwashed into believing that things that came in cans were modern and nutritious, while anything containing garlic was foreign and faintly dirty. Black people were pretty much invisible.
The Taffetas: A Musical Journey Through the Fabulous Fifties is a pre-packaged, lightweight, no-calories, go-down-easy sort of show, a cheap-to produce moneymaker with no artistic or intellectual ambitions — and this Denver Center Attractions version even contains a couple of incredibly vulgar segments in which the performers hype Coors beer and United Airlines. But even so, I thoroughly enjoyed The Taffetas. The costumes are perfect, the choreography appealing, the musical arrangements terrific and the sound clear (amazing for a production in the Galleria Theatre). The songs range from silly to interesting to really pretty, and most important, the four women cast by director Ray Roderick are charming and talented. The evening features all the incessant smiling you expect, but — unexpectedly — you find yourself wanting to smile back.
According to what evanescent plot line there is, the four cast members are sisters from Muncie, Indiana, who are performing on a television program in New York and hoping to snare a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show — though it often seems they'd be equally happy taking the bus back to Muncie, where one of them has been crowned Ball Jar Queen. There's a little teasing among them but very little dialogue, and they're only sketchily differentiated as characters. Still, they sing beautifully, both as soloists and together, and I often wished they'd finish a particular song rather than simply offer a snippet as part of a medley. Reyna Von Vett has a mischievous smile, a warm presence and a terrific vocal range — whether she's singing high in her head or calling resonance from deep in her chest. Elizabeth Welch thrills with a sweet, pure soprano, and Juliana Black not only sings well, but displays potent comic chops in a black-jacketed, Elvis-style rendition of the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'." Melinda Dickson-Smart plays the ditzy baby of the family. Their singing is punctuated by genuine television commercials of the era, including the rhythmically percolating coffeepot that sold America on Maxwell House and the jingle that affirms "You'll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent." You also get to admire an extravagantly finned Chevrolet of the era, and to remember that this was a time when sophistication was signaled on screen by a haze of cigarette smoke, whether circling a woman's sleek dark hair or the battered fedora of an impassive Bogart look-alike.
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through September 16, Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Despite its superficiality, The Taffetas does communicate some of the realities of its era. The friend who came to the show with me is in her early twenties, and the only song she recognized was "Istanbul, Not Constantinople," because it's been covered by They Might Be Giants. She enjoyed the evening quite a bit, nonetheless, but she also noted that the '50s must have been a very repressive, unfabulous time. I don't know if it was the music that clued her in, or the little white gloves.
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