Ivanhoe Theater

Someday perhaps, when I’ve lost my taste for living in the present, I’ll be seduced by the appeal of the nostalgia musical. I’ll turn off the leaking faucet of time and escape merrily into a revisionist past. In that brief refuge, I’ll revel in the absurdity of how I used to dress and wear my hair. I’ll snicker at my old worldview. And because the nostalgia musical will present me with a humorous but never cynical vision of my past, I’ll walk home refreshed and smug in the appreciation of my present-day style, wisdom, and (dare I use the word?) postmodern wit. That’ll be the day–the day they make a musical about the Velvet Underground.

Meanwhile, here I am watching The Taffetas, a saturation bombing of 43 popular Caucasian tunes from the late 50s and early 60s. The Taffetas themselves are a quartet of sisters, not so vaguely reminiscent of the Lennon Sisters. They appear on a TV show entitled Spotlight on Music, which has a live studio audience (us) and soap bubbles, but no Lawrence Welk. These Taffetas are nice gals from Muncie, Indiana–a town that is apparently funny just at the mention of the name–who wear identical outfits in different pastels. They sing a lot, and they have to if they want to get through all 43 numbers on the bill. Even though they can knock off a dozen hits in a single medley, that doesn’t leave much time for talk. So you damn well better love this sort of music or it’s going to be a long evening.

It was a long evening. Some of the songs I recognized were “Mr. Sandman,” “C’est Si Bon,” “See the USA in Your Chevrolet,” “Rag Mop,” “Puppy Love,” “Johnny Angel,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Where the Boys Are.” There are at least twice as many songs I never heard yet am somehow not anxious to secure on tape. For a few fleeting seconds in the second act you’ll even hear Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love.” Cherish that moment before it gets drowned out (in medley) by Pat Boone’s immortal “Love Letters in the Sand.”

But then, maybe you like Pat Boone. I myself once owned a red translucent 45 of Patti Page singing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” (also featured in The Taffetas). I used to play that 45 over and over, jeopardizing my parents’ sanity. Now I know how they felt. An evening of The Taffetas is like having warm Karo syrup poured over your hair and into your ears.

The one song I liked is the encore number, “Little Darlin’,” originally recorded by the Diamonds. The Taffetas introduce this as a brand-new tune in the same way that a rock band might apologize in advance, saying something like, “We’re still working on this.” And they launch into it with an awkwardness that’s choreographed to contrast with the polish of their more familiar numbers. They belt it out and it works. The reason I think it works is that, in this number only, the cast takes off the Taffetas instead of playing the Taffetas taking off the Lennon Sisters. This is a crucial difference, and it releases the nihilistic imaginations of the actors from the straitjackets of cutesy satire. This is also the key to why the rest of the show is so dismally inert. Satires of the 50s have been done to death, so much so that a satire of the satire is a welcome relief.

Postmodernism meets its nemesis: post-postmodernism. What is art anymore? A comment on a comment? Damn, I shouldn’t have said that. Now those fatuous postmodernists are going to write in, and at length. And then the futurists will have a go at them, because the futurists are really incipient post-postmodernists who are trying to dissociate themselves from past political . . . No, forget I brought it up. All I meant to say was I liked “Little Darlin’.” It’s real B-52’s type of stuff.

The rest of the music, whether it’s pop or schmaltz, all runs together in my memory. The Taffetas smile relentlessly, or turn wistful, or twinkle their eyes, according to the musical occasion. Yet throughout, attitude is more important than music. The emphasis is always upon the Taffetas, what a cornball phenomenon they are. How could we have ever taken the Lennon Sisters seriously? As you can imagine, it’s a gag that ages rapidly.

I don’t want to slight the talent here, however desperate they must be to make a living wage. They give consistent attitude. Jill Walmsley plays Cheryl, the oldest sister, a little like Vivien Leigh playing Blanche Dubois. Paula Scrofano is Kaye, a smiling, outgoing redhead. Jody Abrahams plays Donna, a smiling, outgoing airhead. And Anne Gunn is Peggy, the wistful, baby-fat youngest sister. They have just enough individuality to make them distinguishable from one another. But what’s eerie about them is that you get no sense of their relationship as sisters. I can’t even picture them as human beings. They’re four perfect cupcakes, each with a different color of frosting.

This confectionary tone keeps the musical light and stupid. But during a commercial break I did detect a surreal note. In a rare nonmusical interlude the Taffetas hawk the “Galaxy” line of beauty aids. Kaye (Scrofano) presents Galaxy’s new fragrance, “Moonglow.” When she first holds it up she’s smiling like an idiot but her head is shaking a little bit as if she had Parkinson’s disease or were about to have a nervous breakdown. I can’t explain it but it’s funny and slightly terrifying. Then Kaye squirts the Moonglow on herself and succumbs to an epiphany of some sort, as if she were visited by the Holy Ghost in the form of Perry Como wearing shorty pajamas. This, needless to say, is my favorite part of the show.

My least favorite part is “Taffeta Chatter”–a chance to get to know the Taffetas as they answer scripted questions from the studio audience.

“What woman in history do you admire most?” (Mamie Eisenhower, Mother, and Connie Francis.) “How far do you go on the first date?” (Cheryl once went to Honey Creek, 20 miles south of Muncie.) You get the idea: an impossibly simple people from a simpler time and place.

Regardless of the fact that The Taffetas is an overdone joke and a cultural redundancy, it is, at least, a professional job. The cast can sing, although Scrofano is perhaps a bit too precise in her vocal satire to allow for much originality, and Gunn is occasionally flat. No big deal; I think there are only three or four notes in the entire score anyway. Michael Leavitt’s direction is mildly cute, mildly comical, mildly mild. Tina Paul’s choreography follows Leavitt’s lead, except for her chronic flashes of imagination. And the band, under the musical direction of Rick Lewis, is OK. Pardon my enthusiasm.

Drop 42 of the musical numbers and save the Moonglow commercial and I think they’d have a pretty good little show on their hands. As is, I hate this stuff. What is this nostalgia craze: a celebration or a colonic? I don’t care. Enough of this moonwalking through pop history. Give me a future!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.