by Marilyn Lester
It’s the 1958 senior prom at Springfield High School in Anywhere, USA – and you and your date are there, right on the gym floor, primed and ready to have a really fun night and a darn good time. Since it’s 1958 and your biggest worry is about the efficacy of Clearasil, how far to go at the drive-in and who will be chosen Prom Queen, luckily, you won’t have to worry too hard or too long; for your entertainment tonight, four fellow seniors in big, flouncy crinoline, the Wonderettes, will sing their hearts out for you. They want to make sure you have plenty of fun and leave the Prom humming a happy tune.
The Marvelous Wonderettes is, at its heart, a good-time jukebox musical, with a premise as innocent as the 1950s nostalgia it mines. The show is all about l-o-v-e, and the teenage drama of boy-girl relationships. The angst unfolds through the girl group, the Wonderettes, third-place winners in the State Song Leader’s Competition. The Wonderettes are close harmony BFFs (although the relationship between Betty Jean and Cindy Lou is about to fray over that embodiment of teenage manhood, Johnny). Each of the Wonderettes is a highly defined, archetypal character: bespectacled Missy (Christina Bianco) is the sincere and genuine good girl. Betty Jean (Sally Schwab) is a tomboy, gawky and prankish. Cindy Lou (Jenn Leigh Green) is the vain girl, a cocksure preener, and Suzy (Kathy Brier) is the gum-cracking scatterbrain with a heart of gold.
All four actresses playing the Wonderettes are powerhouse singers. That’s a good thing since their teenage angst is told in song – lots of them, to a pre-recorded sound track, music directed by William Wade (with perfectly balanced sound design by Mickey Bahr). The Act One opener is a beautifully harmonized “Mr. Sandman” moving quickly into “Lollipop” and “Sugartime”. The drama centers around a stolen boyfriend, a crush on teacher Mr. Lee and the selection of the Prom Queen, embodied in classic hits of the era, such as “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Dream Lover,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Lipstick on Your Collar” and the act one closers “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.”
It’s apparent by this time that the actors are having fun, each holding her own. They toss off the petty sniping, the jealousies, the upstagings and the hugs and kisses with gleeful abandon. In the way that art can imitate life and vice versa, the ensemble is in tune; each actress delivering on all-round grade-A talent that harmonizes with the whole. Their choreography, by Alex Ringle, gives them plenty to work with too – the dancing, prancing, hand jives and synchronized backup-girl moves are delightful and right on the money. These girls are all prime performers and they’re into the spirit of the piece with total commitment.
By Act Two, life and love have taken a serious turn for the Wonderettes. It’s Springfield High’s ten-year class reunion, and the miniskirt and go-go boot clad Wonderettes have experienced the tumultuous 1960s. Suzy is pregnant and having trouble in her marriage. Cindy Lou has had her dreams busted in Hollywood. Plus, she and Betty Jean have been estranged. As for Missy, she’s realized her dream of snagging Mr. Lee but she has “The Wedding Bell Blues.” The dramas are told through songs such as “It’s In His Kiss,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” “It’s My Party,’ “Leader of the Pack” and “Maybe.” When happiness is restored to the land, the Wonderettes look forward to the future with a cheery “see you in 1978!” and “Thank You and Goodnight” exit music.
Roger Bean created and wrote The Marvelous Wonderettes as a one-act in 1998 for a black box space, later expanding the material, which has since become an audience favorite. As producers, Tom and Michael D’Angora have wisely understood that the success of the work is closely tied to the intimacy of the theater. In the small Kirk the environment is perfect for allowing the Wonderettes to effectively utilize off stage areas. As directors, the D’Angoras keep the action moving and the bits of business flowing, without allowing any of it to be a distraction. The set, a compact stage within a stage, with a purposefully homemade look, was designed by William Davis. Since the girl’s dresses were “made by Missy,” Bobby Pearce’s costumes appropriately look as if they’d just emerged from home economics class. Shawn Boyle designed the lighting and Jen Bullock created funky wigs, especially the two “big hair” beehives for Missy. Krystal Roccaro serves as production stage manager.
The Marvelous Wonderettes. Through September 4, 2016, at The Kirk Theater at Theater Row (410 West 42 Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues), www.themarvelouswonderettes.com
Photos: Jason Russo (HeyMrJason Photography)