‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’Section 4A, Entertainment News Monday, February 20th, 2012
If you have seen Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages or The Jersey Boys, you will understand the premise behind The Marvelous Wonderettes. Thread a paper-thin narrative through a catalogue of songs that revolve around a Swedish band (ABBA), genre (rock-n-roll) or an era (the 1950s) and hey presto you have a musical.
The Marvelous Wonderettes falls into the latter of these categories resurrecting more than 20 classic pop songs from the 1950s and the 1960s some, though not all, with great affect thanks to a nice chemistry between the four performers, their comic timing and their four part harmony.
Directed by its writer and creator Roger Bean, The Marvelous Wonderettes comes to the San Diego Musical Theatre (with two of its original Wonderettes!) from the Westside Theatre in New York where it premiered off-Broadway in 2008. The production is the first in the 2012 season for the San Diego Musical Theatre and the first show at its new home, the Birch North Park Theatre.
I have been to the Birch North Park Theatre many times for movies and stand-up comedy and other events, but never for a staged play or musical so I was intrigued. While I am glad this old neighborhood building has been refurbished and brought back to active use it has always struck me as a rather gloomy space, nicely remodeled for sure, but still lacking in otherworldly magic. Unfortunately, despite bits of scene-setting sparkle the stage’s drab 1950s set lessened rather than added to my excitement. That combined with a half-hearted piece of audience participation before the show began only added to my anticipation of something on the sadder side of marvelous.
Nevertheless, The Marvelous Wonderettes takes you to the 1958 Springfield High School prom where we meet the Wonderettes; four girls with hopes and dreams as big as their crinoline skirts! So says the press release, although I am not sure this is clearly the case. When called upon to perform at their senior prom as a last minute replacement, Springfield High Songleaders, Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy and Suzy, rally together to entertain their classmates.
And they do. Act I is very entertaining, more than I expected since catalogue-based musicals like this one rely upon the nostalgic yearning of a target demographic to relive an earlier, younger and dare I say less-complicated time in their lives; and I am not particularly connected to the 1950s.
But the four leads establish their personas fast and each one is likable and easy to track. Missy (Misty Cotton) serious and be-spectacled; Suzy (Bets Malone) bubble-gum chewing ditz; Cindy Lou (Lowe Taylor) pretty, and she knows it and Betty Jean (Beth Malone), or B.J. as she would prefer, a gangly “tomboy” who I was expecting to bust out of the closet at any moment. All four performers have strong and distinct voices that blend nicely but that also stand alone, though the turning point for me was when tiny Missy steps into her own spotlight with the ballad “Secret Love.” That’s when my inner cynic stopped critiquing and I found myself truly appreciating Misty Cotton’s vocal range and these classic songs in their own right, as well as the antics of the ensemble to bring this threadbare story alive.
There are plenty of antics too, especially in the first half of the show. Spectators, young and old clearly embraced the characters and the physical comedy of these awkward adolescent girls negotiating love and friendship and the prom – that all-important rite of passage. I was reminded of four teenage Lucille Balls rising to the challenge but sometimes failing to be sophisticated ladies and consummate entertainers. Audience participation is threaded through the show as well as the crowning of a prom queen. It even includes a bit of crowd-pleasing interaction that brings the Wonderettes off the stage and into the seats.
I was expecting more from Act II, not only because I had relaxed into a show that had seduced me out of my skepticism but also because the 1960s is a decade I am more excited about, musically speaking. Unfortunately the novelty of a ten-year reunion loses steam quickly and the narrative arc of all four women falls into a series of cliché closures and some eye-rolling song-plot correlations (“It’s My Party” never sounded so hokey, and Beth Malone knows it when she winks at the audience before belting it out). But the Wonderettes do their best to add weight to the individual hopes and dreams that were barely established in Act I and the show ends with a satisfied audience giving the girls a standing O. But both they and the audience deserved something a little bit more to marvel at in the end.
Overall the show is a fun distraction if you have a strong connection to the late 1950s. It is a nice G rated outing, less for any kind of camp factor, maybe more enjoyable as an evening out with your parents.
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