‘Shout! The Mod Musical’ at Creative Cauldron

FOUR AND A HALF STARS
I attended Shout! The Mod Musical braless. TMI?

Well, Creative Cauldron invited us to dress like something out of the Sixties-Seventies, so there we were, women in our 50s and 60s, grooving to the hits of our youth and letting it all hang out. Those were the days, my friend, when young women burned their bras, young men burned their draft cards, and the only midnight oil burned was likely incense- or drug-infused.

The cast of “Shout! The Mod Musical,” from left: Yellow Girl (Aimee Barnes), Green Girl (Iyona Blake), Red Girl (Melissa Berkowitz), Blue Girl (Sarah Anne Sillers), and Orange Girl (Ashleigh King).

The cast of “Shout! The Mod Musical,” from left: Yellow Girl (Aimee Barnes), Green Girl (Iyona Blake), Red Girl (Melissa Berkowitz), Blue Girl (Sarah Anne Sillers), and Orange Girl (Ashleigh King).

Shout! is light on story but heavy on atmosphere. The revue follows five nameless young “birds” (chicks) in England navigating the fast-changing times, as reflected and dictated by a fictitious magazine, “Shout!” — an amalgam of such trendy, advice-y, sex-quiz magazines as Cosmo and Redbook aimed at “the modern woman.” But “modern” is a moving target, as any glance back through the microfiches of vintage articles and ads would reveal.

The characters here are known only as “Red Girl,” “Blue Girl,” “Green Girl,” “Yellow Girl” and “Orange Girl,” archetypes on a spectrum from the domestic Donna Reed sort (orange) to a confused and complex That Girl (red) to liberated slut (green). And isn’t that so like the Spice Girls, or the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, or even the Teletubbies? In searching for identity, we measure ourselves against an external, iconic, impossible yardstick.

The show’s power, ultimately, comes in overlaying what we know now — about free love and civil rights, products like asbestos, even issues like domestic violence — and realizing how far we’ve come since feminism took root. Back when the slogan was “You’ve come a long way, baby,” society had taken only its first baby steps.

Scenic and Costume Designer Margie Jervis sets the tone by transforming the Artspace black box into a riotous rainbow of color and pattern. Before even the first downbeat of his mix-master magic, one-man band Music Director/Keyboardist Mark Deffenbaugh sits like a deejay in a screened window framed by old vinyl discs, spinning oldies. The night I attended, he segued from Janis Joplin to one-hit wonders The Troggs (“Wild Thing”) and Scott McKenzie (“If You’re Going to San Francisco”). When Creative Cauldron Founder and Producing Director Laura Connors Hull greeted and surveyed the audience to find out who had traveled farthest, a gentleman in the front row echoed “San Francisco”! Perfect.

The set’s centerpiece is a large, moody-blue flower that says, unapologetically, “Flower Power.” Quite literally, it speaks, hiding a screen where Robert Aubry Davis, first in black-and-white and eventually color technology, narrates with witty, agony-aunt shtick. As Gwendolyn Holmes, he doles out mostly bad advice until the girls, after shoo-shoo-shimmying their way through hits like “I Only Want to Be With You,” “To Sir With Love” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” finally find their footing and rebel in an electrifying “Shout!”

Director Matt Conner achieves an orgasmic, high-energy mix of Laugh-In meets Midnight Special. Together with Jervis, he transforms what start out as monochromatic, patterned pawns, ingénues subscribing to boxy labels in stilted wigs (dippity-dos!), into multifaceted women who literally learn to let their hair down — to differentiate and love themselves, instead of looking for love in all the wrong places.

Conner’s Mod squad includes some precocious talent, especially Sarah Anne Sillers (Blue Girl), a new Princeton graduate and acting dynamo whose contralto is like silk and honeyed milk, and Ashleigh King (Orange Girl), a vocal pillar whose credits include Signature Theatre productions of Dreamgirls and Hairspray. Voice coaches in real life, Iyona Blake (Green Girl – who proves the least green on stage) and Aimee Barnes (Yellow Girl) impress by practicing what they preach (sing it, girl!). Blake’s pacing is spot-on; her “I’ll have what she’s having” moment is seat-squirmingly infective, but she elicits goosebumps with her vocals alone. Melissa Berkowitz (Red Girl) adds a strong physical presence, creating fits during a sequence in which she mimes the increasingly undesirable side effects of The Pill.

Choreography by Stephen Gregory Smith is both nostalgic and inventive — plenty of the Swim, Mashed Potato, Pony, Monkey and the Twist to go around, but with enough breathing space for cast members to add their own sparkle. Among staging highlights: the wild, jostling ride of “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”; “Son of a Preacher Man,” when Barnes emerges in a psychedelic dress like a soul-infused Twiggy and leads a spotlight-dance revival; and “Goldfinger,” a trippy scene in which the ladies on a missionary mission don prophylactic gloves and morph into Bond girls — rather, femme fatales.

There’s the requisite groovy lighting, designed by Joey Wallen, but it’s thankfully not over-the-top — just a hint of LSD-inspired LEDs. One of the most effective strategies is the spooky spot on the ever-circulating magazine covers, blithely marking the passage of time.

Also brilliantly marking time are Jervis’ costumes, a parade of LOUD museum pieces (how did she gain access to the back of our closets?). They transition from very short mini-skirts to less-revealing maxis and caftans, with accessories added as the characters bloom and gain confidence.

It all makes you wanna shout, and sing. So get your threads and juices flowing, head “downtown” (Falls Church), check your hate at the door and bask in the Haight vibe of this upbeat, far-out labor of love.

Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.

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Shout! The Mod Musical  plays through May 25, 2014, at Creative Cauldron’s Artspace -410 South Maple Avenue, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 436-9948, or purchase them online.

 

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