Musical revues that spoof our 1950s and 1960s cultural yesteryears are always fun to watch, not only for the target demo who can still enjoy the old-school pop and rock’n’roll, but also for younger audiences who are amused by the decades’ wacky hairstyles and the out-of-fashion clothes that their elders used to stuff in their closets.
The girl-group focus of The Marvelous Wonderettes—the area debut of creator Roger Bean’s popular work from Rarely Done Productions, now at the intimate Jazz Central space on 441 E. Washington St.—offers more than a simple nostalgia cash-in, however. With director Dan Tursi guiding a swell cast of singing sweethearts, his take on Wonderettes sometimes feels more like a logical predecessor to Menopause: The Musical.
The first act concerns the night of Springfield High School’s 1958 “Super Senior Prom,” when the ad hoc female student quartet the Marvelous Wonderettes is asked to warble as a last-minute substitute for the boys’ glee club after the club’s central singer was caught smoking. (“Tobacco can kill, and make you ill,” the girls chant. “Don’t be a butthead.”) Unfortunately, the young ladies’ private lives often spill over into their public routine. Natural-born leader Missy (Aubry Panek) does what she can to keep the others in line, but it’s no easy task given the rivalry between Betty Jean (Jodie Baum) and Cindy Lou (Katie Lemos Brown), with accusations that Betty Jean’s twotiming boyfriend has hooked up with Cindy Lou. Meanwhile, the blissfully ditzy Suzy (Sara Weiler) is always assured of having the evening’s spotlight, since her unseen boyfriend Richie is working the prom’s lighting system.
Bean knew what he was doing by frontloading the first act with silly pop hits from the I-Like-Ike era, as infectious renditions of the Connie Francis tracks “Stupid Cupid” and “Lipstick on Your Collar” fill the air. Tursi likewise has fun with parodies of those songs, like the ways in which the Wonderettes exaggerate the bum-bum-bum-bum refrain for the opener “Mr. Sandman.” He keeps the play hopping with lots of stage business, with lighting miscues that are deliberate and gaffes galore for the quartet’s awkward stagecraft. There’s a trick to making the faux clumsiness look natural, and Tursi and his cast are up to the harder-than-it-looks challenge. Some minor instances of naughtiness also pop up, like Betty Jean’s nickname (BJ, natch) and a blackboard proclaiming “Springfield High School: It’s Terrific,” a gag that you can see coming from Warren Street.
The second act offers a 1968 high school reunion, a dual opportunity to note how much the ladies have matured in the last 10 years as well as the changes in popular music. Gone are the frothy novelty numbers, now replaced by more meaningful music such as Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” that can’t really be kidded. And while traditional musicals thrive on songs that reveal characters’ motivations and passions, Bean has to work in reverse for Wonderettes by conforming his own characters’ backstories to the lyrics of Top 40 chartbusters.
Thus, the words from Lesley Gore’s song “It’s My Party” inform Betty Jean’s lament that her forever unfaithful guy Johnny has taken up with another high school rival named Judy.
Act II may be a smidgen more serious, especially when Cindy Lou reveals her hardluck decade. Yet Bean steadfastly shies away from countercultural touchstones of the late 1960s, as most of his ladies are adorned with miniskirts, beehive hairdos and Nancy Sinatra-esque discotheque boots.
It must have taken some ultra-dedication for director Tursi to close one play and open The Marvelous Wonderettes just five days later. (A program for the previous production, Corpus Christi, was still stuffed between the Jazz Central seats during a dress rehearsal.) Then again, maybe the quick turnaround has worked to the show’s advantage because it offers plenty of fast-paced fun. Goofiness abounds but never overwhelms the show, notably the bits that deal with the girls’ hopes for romantic salvation with a paper “dreamcatcher,” and references to the school’s chipmunk mascot, which trigger an avalanche of bucktoothed salutations from the ladies. Musical director Nadine Cole ably keeps the hits coming, all performed with a good beat that you can dance to.
The casting adds to the show’s good vibrations. Aubry Panek’s acting career has often leaned on the bombshell side, yet she’s a riot in Wonderettes, as her myopic Missy peers through cat’s-eye glasses, all the while barking orders to her colleagues like the schoolteacher she will eventually become. Sara Weiler manages to sidestep the expected blond stereotype, even as her Suzy endures a physical transformation in 1968 (she’s preggers) and waaaaahs like Lucille Ball in her heyday. Weiler’s a slapstick champ, too; she vaults from the podium while wearing high heels at one point, and she makes the yucky most of her character’s chewing-gum mishap.
Yet the heart of this production concerns the rocky relationship between Cindy Lou and Betty Jean. Katie Lemos Brown doesn’t make theatergoers hate her vixenish Cindy Lou, either, as she contributes considerable empathy for her role. Dressed in jet-black leather for her Act II set of “Leader of the Pack” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” the actress comes close to stealing the show. Preventing that from happening is Jodie Baum’s equally strong work as Betty Jean, whose flair for slow-burn comic reactions adds plenty to her character’s vengeful moments. Baum’s a Merman-esque belter, too, giving an emotional heft to “It’s My Party” that deepens Gore’s original.
The Marvelous Wonderettes was initially produced as a 1999 one-act at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and has since morphed into one of the jukebox genre’s top audience-pleasers. Meanwhile, Roger Bean has
become a cottage industry unto his own, as he has created similar riffs on the popular revue formula (The Andrews Brothers was done last summer at Cortland Repertory Theatre) and even has a ready-made sequel titled Winter Wonderettes, a Christmas 1968themed follow-up. Although one does wonder whether Rarely Done’s 2011-2012 season may include that sequel, the company’s happy mounting of The Marvelous Wonderettes suggests that they’re already ahead of the curve if they go in that direction.
This production runs through April 23. See Times Table for information.
Ladies’ night: (Pictured above) From left, Katie Lemos Brown, Sara Weiler, Jodie Baum and Aubry Panek and as The Marvelous Wonderettes.