Like a musical cotton-candy machine, Roger Bean’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” spins the sweetly silly girl group hits from the ’50s and ’60s at Florida Studio Theatre. It was a volatile era. Here, the only conflicts are catfights over boyfriends and spotlights.
The musical unfolds at Springfield High on prom night in 1958, and then fast-forwards to the 10-year high school reunion in 1968. The Marvelous Wonderettes are the girl group — originally thrown together as a last-minute replacement for the boy band, whose lead singer was caught smoking in the boy’s room. The quartet is comprised of Missy (Ann Flanigan), the bespectacled brainiac; Betty Jean (Meredith Jones), the goofy class clown; and Suzy (Chelsea Turbin), the gum-chewing ditz; Cindy Lou (Sarah Ledtke McCann), the smug, pretty Prom Queen in Waiting. Or so she thinks.
Once the Wonderettes take the stage, you know what you’re in for. Once they start singing, you instantly see the theme. The lyrics neglect mention of battles, rivers, politics, historical figures or personifications of wind. Love is the topic of the day — in all of its many forms.
The permutations include: Sweet (“Lollipop”); jealous (“Lipstick on Your Collar”); inappropriate (“Teacher’s Pet”); ardent (“Heat Wave”); hidden (“Secret Love”); imagined (“Dream Lover”); and rejected (It's My Party”). And, in an amazing coincidence, the songs all follow the groove of the girls’ life stories. Cindy Lou falls for “The Son of the Preacher Man,” who turns into “The Leader of the Pack.” Suzy needs her husband Ritchie to show her some “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Betty Jean’s lover dumps her — and “That’s When the Teardrops Start.” Missy pleads for “Mr. Lee” to stop stalling with “Wedding Bell Blues.” What are the odds?
The amazingly talented actors do their song and dance with style. They’re all pros — and professional enough to pretend to be amateurs with a few missed cues and flubbed lines. Ellie Mooney’s elaborately coordinated choreography pretends to be uncoordinated. Only occasionally, but enough to keep the illusion alive.
Director Jason Cannon treats the campy, nostalgic material lovingly but never seriously. The result is as sweet as a ride in the tunnel of love while wearing rose-colored glasses. Darren Server’s music direction keeps the sweet ride bouncing along. He’s backstage with a digital keyboard. With the aid of a few samples, he manages to sound like a full band.
Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set is an archetypal high school gym. Think cinder block walls, painted and repainted in garish layers of red and yellow acrylic paint. Sometime after 1967, somebody slapped a “Laugh-In”-style, pop-art grid on the wall. Clever. Susan Angermann’s costumes shift from puffy, pastel dresses in the 1950s to Day-Glo short skirts in the 1960s. Also clever.
Bean’s jukebox musical loves living in the past — or the reimagined past. Although it’s set in two turbulent decades, the musical omits mention of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, duck-and-cover drills, the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the nuclear arms race, the civil rights movement or anti-war protests. If you’re looking for a history lesson, you’re pushing the wrong button on the jukebox. If you’re looking to escape the panic of the present, they’re playing your tune.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.