The Marvelous Wonderettes
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
September 9, 2008
Like the pineapple coconut cream pie, Black Forest cake, or lemon meringue surprise that entices you through the window of the slowly spinning dessert case at the diner, but then disappoints once you get a taste, The Marvelous Wonderettes, the new musical comedy currently shimmying and shoop-shooping over at the Westside Theatre, doesn't live up to its looks. More an overlong jukebox sketch than a thoughtfully executed musical, the thin premise and tired concept don't possess the right ingredients to sustain interest very long in what ultimately ends up tasting like a heaping slice of hokey pie.
It's 1958 and the night of Springfield High School's senior prom and The Marvelous Wonderettes, a pastel-colored crinolined foursome made up of graduating seniors Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Missy, and Suzy introduce themselves as the evening's entertainment, and begin smoothly serenading us, the prom-attending audience, with popular tunes like "Mr. Sandman," "Lollipop," and "Dream Lover." Cindy Lou is the pretty one, Betty Jean is the tomboy, Suzy is the ditsy one, and Missy is the glue that holds them together; and glue is also desperately needed to hold this tedious two-hour tuner together. The show's book, which is actually more a situation than a book, is not sustained in a consistent or logical way. You lose the sense that you are at a prom as the characters perform to the audience one minute, and then squabble with one another or reveal secrets the next, as if the audience is no longer there. The group's various interactions are also the catalysts for most of the songs, a forced and contrived device that probably would have worked had the show been directed with a more spoof-like or satirical hand. Then there are the tired audience participation moments we've all seen before, such as casting a ballot for Marvelous Queen of your Dreams, and the selection of a poor soul to come on stage to represent Missy's secret teacher crush, conveniently named, "Mr. Lee." (Insert song here.)
What does keep the soufflé that is The Marvelous Wonderettes from completely caving in, however, are the four wonderfully talented women who make up the cast. Farah Alvin, Beth Malone, Bets Malone, and Victoria Matlock are each a treasure and commit to their stereotypes with gusto and glee, somehow eking out charm and humor from the material where there is little to be found. Whether harmonizing, or cranking out a solo, their voices are among the finest to be found on or off Broadway and are a constant joy to the ear.
Michael Carnahan's gymatorium-like set design is a nice blend of authenticity and kitsch, which is enhanced by Jeremy Pivnick's appropriately cheerful lighting. Janet Miller's choreography is standard backup singer stuff that could use more originality and spunk. Bobby Pearce's costume design in the first act is terrifically fun '50s foofiness, but his work feels rushed and sloppy in Act Two with the performers appearing as if they've dressed up in their mothers' ill-fitting negligees while their wigs look like they got run over a few times by the leader of the pack. It is the direction, though, that is ultimately the biggest weakness here. Roger Bean, who is also the writer, is only able to offer bland efficiency to a production that sorely needs some vision and edge. Had a separate director been at the helm, a more innovative and objective perspective might have been brought to the table. It's clear, for example, that the aforementioned artistic team has a lot to offer, but Bean doesn't seem to know how to creatively maximize and integrate their skills to the production's benefit.
In the end, The Marvelous Wonderettes feels like it was brought into being for the sole purpose of trying to re-create the magic formula of small cast plus popular material equals commercial success that once worked for shows like Forever Plaid, Nunsense, and the Westside Theatre's former tenant, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. That said, it could just be that this show wasn't to my taste, so if you're the kind of person who's simply craving corny Golden Oldies comfort food that looks good and tastes cloyingly sweet, then The Marvelous Wonderettes will very likely satisfy.