Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: September 21, 2011
Merry-Go-Round offers a blast from the past with The Marvelous Wonderettes
Two nostalgia jukebox musicals, The Taffetas for girl groups, and Forever Plaid for guys, have been bopping around for more than 20 years. They seemed plenty charming at first, but eventually they wore out their welcome, in part because much of the music was self-consciously archaic and limited mostly to the groups being spoofed.
Milwaukee playwright Roger Bean has reinvented the form with a string of hits, such as The Andrews Brothers on World War II music that was seen at Cortland Repertory Theatre last summer. His most recent success is The Marvelous Wonderettes, which is the season finale from Auburn's Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. After making it to off-Broadway three years ago, it has become one of the most-often produced shows in regional theaters in 2011. Bean's concept has two advantages over his predecessors: His gags are better and he really loves the music of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Wonderettes of the title are four gal pals at Springfield High School in an unnamed Midwestern state when American-made cars sported fins on their back fenders. Thrown together almost by accident to perform at the prom, they get on stage only because the boys' glee club was bounced for smoking. Scenic designer R. Thomas Ward puts them in a period gymnasium with tiled walls and exit signs. Because Bean is not satirizing girl groups like the Chordettes, the Wonderettes in 1958 have a wide repertory extending what were originally solos, like George Goehring's "Lipstick on Your Collar" and Neil Sedaka's "Stupid Cupid."
So as not to overdose on good things, Bean moves the action forward in the second act to 1968, a year of revolution, where the transformed Wonderettes celebrate a reunion. Dress styles change, their hair poofs into bouffants, and four small-town white girls suddenly begin to sing in the cadences of urban blacks with John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins' "Son of a Preacher Man" and Otis Redding's "Respect," Aretha Franklin's anthem. The time shift is outwardly a playwright's facile device, but it yields multifold benefits. Not only do we get entirely different music in the second half, but the 28-year-old Wonderettes become ironic commentators on the teenagers we just saw.
Playwright Bean's efficient exposition immediately separates the foursome into recognizable persons bringing issues with one another. Tiffany Howard's color-coded costuming and Bobbie Zlotnik's hair designs underscore the divisions. They don't always stand in the same order, so no one really comes first but redhaired, bespeckled Missy (Lulu Lloyd) emerges as the take-charge or bossy one. She tries to limit the others' excesses, and in 10 years she will turn out to be a teacher. Talented, she also belts out the first act's top solo, "Secret Love," a Doris Day number from Calamity Jane (1954). Curiously, although few today remember the song's composers, Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, "Secret Love" was also a show-stopper in former Syracuse New Times publisher Art Zimmer's long-running nostalgia review Cruizin'.
Attention hog Cindy Lou (Holly O'Brien) commands everyone's eyes just by standing there. A shapely, gorgeous brunette (O'Brien was previously Belle in MGR's Beauty and the Beast), Cindy exudes that sense of entitlement the beautiful people demand. Her first act's solo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Lucky Lips," could be delivered by no one else. Even though she matures into a Cynthia in the 1960s, the next decade isn't kind to her, and her disappointment hardens into disaffection and a black leather jacket. Her second-act medley trends toward the punkish, like the Shangri-Las' biker song, "Leader of the Pack," with all four girls in sunglasses.
Tomboyish Betty Jean (Julia Goretsky) would not have got on with Cindy Lou at any time, but she's pinching and belting her during the first act because she thinks the haughty beauty has stolen her boyfriend. It's not a groundless suspicion, given Cindy Lou's predatory moves and Betty Jean's steady run of bad luck. The second act's decade brings a management position with a lumber company but a mismatched mating with what sounds like a loser. In the 1978 reunion she gets heartbreak songs for her medley, like Van McCoy's "That's When My Tears Start" and the bitter "It's My Party," which laments the loss of a feckless boyfriend named Johnny to the unseen miscreant Judy Carter. In a ballot stuffed in the program, the audience is asked to vote for five candidates for prom queen, our quartet and ubiquitous Judy Carter.
What Emma Bunton was to the Spice Girls, petite blonde Suzy (Meredith Beck) is to the Wonderettes: the cute, faux-ditsy one. An efficient gum-chewer, Suzy can retrieve her wad from the microphone, when it's stuck there during a number, or from wherever it may fall. In the first act she gets all fluttery about her crush on an unseen Richie, who turns out to be the guy who runs the lights from the tech booth, and guess which one of the quartet find herself most often in the spotlight. So she sings "Stupid Cupid," in the first act, enforcing the persona she prefers to project. Ten years later she has married Richie, delivered one set of twins, and with a protruding belly and tilt-back walk gives evidence that another is soon on the way.
Although we may have been tempted to overlook Suzy, Bean's book gives her the last word. Her second-act medley comes last, with three powerhouse but lesser-known songs, "Maybe I Know," "Needle in a Haystack" and "Rescue Me." Then in a reversal we did not see coming but unmistakably fits with the fullness of her character, she belts out "Respect," the climax of the entire show.
New director Tricia Tanguy, a former MGR ensemble player and an Ithaca College graduate, brings unique strengths to the Auburn company. In New York City, regional outfits like Theatre Aspen, and in road companies, she has already played or understudied all the roles. Not only can she center each of the characters, but she's adroit with continuing episodes of stage business, such as Noises Off-like fake miscues and stumbles that are part of the script and don't look it. Tanguy also nicely handles the girls' not-so-innocent crush on music teacher Mr. Lee, the fullness of which we discover later. And Tanguy is neatly aided by choreographer Janet Miller, who gets the girls in motion, and provides a professional gloss to this production.
It feels churlish to rank one of the foursome ahead of the other. The wonder is that our theatrical culture can still serve up four beautiful women who know how to dance, can sing beautifully and can make you laugh. Such talent can save the Republic. What they rise on, of course, is the music Roger Bean has selected, both obscurities and deathless standards. Mark Goodman's music direction, with an orchestra of six, makes it sound as though they never went away.