Channeling the Splendor of the Fabulous 50s with “The Taffetas”

By Eva Phillips

A surreal comparative train of thought I often entertain is pondering the striking differences between my father’s world and my own. When I turned 21 in 2012, I was paying college tuition fees online, and downloading genre-transcending, hyper-referential music on a wallet-sized device that could connect to the internet. When my father turned 21 in 1957, he was enlisted in the ski patrol through ROTC to pay for college, and would listen to Louis Armstrong on a Phono Art 4 record player. I have watched my father live out things he could never fathom transpiring–in entertainment, in technology, in culture, etc. Yet he ensured, whether intentionally or not, that I was instilled with a thorough understanding and appreciation of the past ages that built the one I lived through.

I thus have a certain appreciation for a distinct period of time in America’s entertainment history that is blissfully vivified in Apple Hill Playhouse’s latest production, The Taffetas. I grew up strangely interpolated between these two generations, watching Lawrence Welk and quoting the most popular radio shows of the 1920s and 30s while I played on my XBOX and could reference the entire AdultSwim lineup (the important fact here is that I was not “cool”).

Billed as a “musical journey through the fabulous 50s,” Taffetas is a Welk-esque, American Bandstand styled variety show that features the musical and personality stylings of four charming sisters straight from the “heartland” of America—Muncie, Indiana (“anyone here from Muncie? No one ever is,” the sisters joke at one point). The sisters, Kaye (Katie Aiello), Peggy (Leyna Wright), Cheryl (Katie Kerr) and Donna (Autumn Hadbavny), deliver an hour and a half of irrepressible, toe-tapping hits and swoon-worthy originals that are interspersed with witticisms and saccharine banter, all accompanied by their steadfast boys-in-the-band (Michael Rozell on Piano, Drew Erdman on Drums, and Tim Blinkhorn on bass).

You would be hard-pressed to find another assemblage of four performers as sublimely harmonious as the women of Taffetas. As silky and lustrous as the fabric their group is named for (one of the many enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek nods to the obscenely twee-aesthetics of yesteryear), Aiello, Wright, Kerr and Hadbavny are outstanding vocalists with exceptional control over their ranges. Each woman balances the other out splendidly, and they shine in their individual performances as well as a unit, in duets, and other such arrangements. The atmosphere and acoustics in Apple Hill Playhouse’s recently refurbished venue are wonderful accessories to the performances, allowing the sonorousness and mellifluousness of each song to resonate superbly throughout the venue. Though lighting could at times have been more nimble, the stage direction and overall coordination of Director Tina Lepidi-Stewart, Stage Manager Alex Podolinski, and Artistic Director Pat Beyer provided phenomenal structure to the performances. Leyna Wright deserves additional applause for creating spot-on choreography for the show on top of her performing duties.

One should note that it takes a certain sort of resilience—pure, dogged spunk of an extreme degree—to do an entire self-contained variety show with a veneer of effervescence that never falters. I imagine it’s partially the cause for so many stars of the early 20th century gobbling amphetamines like they were Boniva. There is also a sort of delightfully sinister interior that veneer conceals—particularly with female artists/performers—hinting to a breaking point, a rage that comes from having to suppress your fatigue, your malaise, your frustration, your resentment for your fellow performers for hours, days, weeks and months to put on the best golly gee whiz wholesome show you ever did see. The talented women of Taffetas deliver individually and collectively in this regard—their aw-shucks chipper rapport with one another and the audience cracks at precisely the right moments, revealing their sisterly disdain for each other and their waning enthusiasm for having to perform the same damn songs night after night after night (one would presume, in the implicit lore of such a group as the Taffetas). Each performer hones her character’s personality supremely well, allowing each sister to stand out just enough, while never quite forgetting their tethered to their ensemble.

The Taffetas is a uniquely nostalgic experience. As it doesn’t unfold in a conventional play or musical formatting, Taffetas might be a bewildering one and a half hours for folks unfamiliar with the concept of this sort of variety/talent show, or for folks not of a certain generation (indeed, I numbered in the handful of audience members in a PACKED theatre younger than fifty years old). But to miss out on this dazzling production would be a shame—Taffetas is enchanting, pitch-perfect, and divinely humorous. It is a walk down proverbial memory lane that all ages can enjoy, and was particularly a treat for someone who was raised by a man who lived through it all (and made me relive it, too).

The Taffetas runs through May 26th. For ticketing information and more, visit their page.

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