Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus
(14 Sep 2008)
Gentlemen, brush those blue suede shoes, and ladies, put on those crinolines, and doo-wop it over to see "The Marvelous Wonderettes," an new musical comedy that brings us back to the good ole' days of proms, pouffy hair, and pin-ups. It's a small show, in a small theater, with a deceptively simple plot, yet it makes you feel better than "Mamma Mia!"
The time is Prom Night 1958 and that hot guy glee club, The Crooning Crabcakes, was canceled by the Principal when their lead singer was caught smoking in the locker room. His wayward behavior made way for the second-string girl group, "The Marvelous Wonderettes," to work their magic at the red satin heart-adorned microphones for Springfield High. But once they open their mouths, we find there's nothing second-rate about this first-rate fab four.
Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy and Suzy, each a lead singer of substance, have hopes and dreams that come alive as they deliver the iconic songs of the late '50s and early '60s. Whether in cinched-waist ruffled dresses or white patent Courreges go-go boots, these ladies rock the house with their perfect pitch and comedic sensibilities.
Their stylized movements when doing backup for each other in such classics as "Mr. Sandman" would poop the Pips, while their deep musical understanding of such ballads as Patti Page's "Allegheny Moon" and Laura Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues" prove that, despite their relative youth, these actors understand what this music means to the '50s and '60s generations.
But that's only part of what makes this show more substantive than you might think. There's the contributions of music director Brian William Baker, and choreographer Janet Miller. Though barely known to New York audiences, their obvious talents are harbingers of greater glories to come here in Gotham. The close four-part harmonies and hilarious backup moves, which require Olympic coordination and gymnastic skill, are masterful, and all four of the well-cast actors are up to the job.
"The Marvelous Wonderettes" features Farah Alvin, whose voice gives these classics a brand new flavor, and whose comic sense is similar to that of Molly Shannon¹s of "SNL." Victoria Matlock endows glamour-girl Cindy Lou with I-wanna-be-a-star reality as she dons a black leather jacket and sings "Leader of the Pack." Rivaling her for the center of attention is tomboy-ish Betty Jean, played in Reba McIntire style by Beth Malone. And Bets Malone is the blonde cutesy-pie Suzy, sticking chewing gum to the microphone as she sticks in our hearts.
With all this doo-wopping, silly prom stuff, and pre-feminist female rivalry, it's easy to dismiss the marvelous "Marvelous Wonderettes" as the stage equivalent of beach reading, but then that darned poignant thing gets in the way -- the ten year reunion. We learn that best friends steal boyfriends; high school sweethearts marry and sometimes don't live happily ever after; and dreams of fame and fortune, more often than not, vaporize into nothing.
Writer/director Roger Bean has written into this effervescent musical a more-complex-than-you-think storyline, and developed the characters into believable people, assuring that "The Marvelous Wonderettes" will sidestep falling into that derogatory category of Jukebox Musical. Entertaining us with one oldie but goodie after another, each Wonderette reveals her own personality, her own style, and her own story. What happens to them in one way or another, has happened to all of us.
Yet these Wonderettes and best friends survive, as have their songs. And while we don't get to dance at their prom, we do get to vote for Prom Queen. This review votes for them all.
(Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus)