Roger Bean’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is now enticing audiences at the Players Centre for Performing Arts with a gum-popping, cat-fighting celebration of the girl groups of the 1950s and ’60s.
Not all of them. At least not at first. The Chordettes, yes. The Shirelles, no.
The first act stuffs the jukebox with syrupy tunes aimed at a narrow demographic segment of the Nifty ’50s. Suburban white girls, like Marty McFly’s mom, OK? They swoon to The Chordettes. The Shirelles? Not so much.
But this musical has a higher goal than scratching a nostalgic itch for a monochromatic America of the mind. It clues you in immediately …
The Fabulous ’50s weren’t so fab.
This revelation transpires in the cornball finery of the Springfield High School gym; it’s all decked out for the 1958 senior prom in a cool set by Jeffrey Weber. Sadly, the boy band can’t make it because the lead singer was caught smoking. The music director press-gangs a girl quartet as a substitute — aka the Marvelous Wonderettes.
The group comprises Missy (Alyssa Goudy), the spectacled intellectual; Betty Jean (Debbi White), the feisty class clown; Cindy Lou (Jessie Tesetano) the stuck-up teen queen; and Suzy (Alana Opie), the gum-chewing klutz. They appear in Tim Beltley’s Technicolor dresses and work their wonders.
While belting out songs, the four talented actors pretend to be amateurs and miss cues, step on lines and don’t hit their spots. They also maintain a running feud involving stolen boyfriends and broken hearts.
I won’t attempt a summary. The complexity approaches “Game of Thrones,” although the stakes aren’t quite so high.
In the second act, the foursome returns for a 10-year reunion in the Swinging ’60s. They’ve gone from bobby socks to go-go boots. Mod gear aside, there’s trouble in paradise. Suzy’s pregnant and abandoned, and she’s not the only one with problems. The music’s also taken a darker, pre-feminist turn.
Motown represents with “It’s in His Kiss,” Aretha Franklin tells it like it is with “Respect.” Dusty Springfield and the Shangri-Las offer sermons of love and lust with “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Leader of the Pack.” Lesley Gore sets boundaries with “You Don’t Own Me.” So it goes.
Yes, the times they were a-changing, but let’s not oversell it.
Bean’s celebration of 1960s girl power is a few sit-ins short of a revolution. The musical’s snarky satire lets you indulge in guilt-free nostalgia. That’s pretty much the whole point. Those expecting more will be asked to leave the prom.
The good news is, the prom’s a whole lot of fun, both in 1958 and 1968.
Beltley’s costumes and Weber’s set nicely evoke the pocket universe of Springfield High. Helen Holliday’s direction is snappy and fun. Depending on how you look at it, the singers can sing or the actors can act.
Through it all, the musical’s selection of songs makes a half-hearted attempt to tell the songstresses’ story. It’s clever and fun, and there’s no big message.