by Samuel L. Leiter
Ah, 1958! The year of my high school prom. And the year of the high school prom depicted in the first act of The Marvelous Wonderettes, now bringing back the golden oldies of the day, songs so familiar to my generation we can still sing practically every word. This popular juke box revue, which has had at least 300 productions since 1999 and was a hit at the Westside Theatre in 2008, has returned with a terrific quartet of close harmony, female singer-comediennes playing members of the eponymous Song Leader team; actually, you could call them a quintet since plus-size Kathy Brier, who plays Suzy, was out when I went, but was marvelously “wonderstudied” by pencil-thin Laura Woyasz, proving that size doesn’t always matter.
As usual, the girls are identifiable by their costume colors: tangerine for Missy (Christina Bianco), the nerdy girl in glasses who loves to show off her high notes; pink for Cindy Lou (Jenna Leigh Green), the pretty, demure one who gets all the boys; and green for Betty Jean (Sally Schwab), the defensive one, ready to fight Cindy Lou over a bad boy named Johnny. Suzy, the gum-chewing ditz whose boyfriend, Richie, is running the lights, always wears blue, but Woyasz wears purple, probably so she can play any role as needed.
Roger Bean’s twee book imagines that, in Act I, the Marvelous Wonderettes are entertaining their classmates and teachers at Springfield High’s Super Senior Prom. One girl will be chosen Prom Queen (you get a pencil and ballot with your program but, entre nous, it’s rigged). And, talking of audience participation, if you’re a male seated somewhere up front, don’t be shocked if you’re yanked up on stage to play the heartthrob teacher, Mr. Lee. In Act II, the Wonderettes are back for a repeat performance at their tenth reunion, in 1968, giving us a chance to see how much they’ve changed over the years. Not that much, it seems.
Most of the songs are linked to the girls’ emotional states and personal relationships—rivalries, friendships, jealousies, disappointments, crushes, boyfriends—showing them first in the crinoline-wearing silliness of their 1958 personas (during which they’re more like junior high airheads than the girls I remember from my senior year). Ten years later, when they show up in shiny, miniskirted, high-booted sleekness, they’ve toned down a bit, but are still suffering from troubled relationships with the men in their lives, not to speak of other disappointments (Cindy Lou’s Hollywood dreams have faded, for example, and Suzy’s not thrilled about being pregnant). The seeds of feminist rebellion are heard in Leslie Gore’s 1963 “You Don’t Own Me,” but for the most part the 1960s’ women’s lib explosion seems to have happened on another planet.
Tom D’Angora and Michael D’Angora energetically staged the show, with spot-on girl group choreography by Alex Ringler. William Davis’s set delivers a mockup of a prom-decorated gymnasium stage, colorfully lit by Lois Catanzaro. Each singer has plenty of solos when not singing backup, although Mickey Bahr’s blurry sound system isn’t their greatest ally.
Bobby Pearce’s deliberately tacky costumes and Jennifer Mooney Bullock’s comically overstated wigs signal a tongue-in-cheek attitude, allowing us to chuckle at the broad shtick, but when the Wonderettes open their vocal cords you have to take them seriously, in songs ranging from Act I’s “Mr. Sandman,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “Sincerely,” and Act II’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” to “Heatwave,” “It’s My Party,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” and “RESPECT.” Sadly, Act II’s music remains rooted largely in the period’s girl group vibe (although there’s nothing from the Supremes) and you get nary a hint of the revolution in pop music going on at the time in soul, rock, and folk.
There are some marvelous moments in The Marvelous Wonderettes but it’s hard not to wish it took a more reflective—even satirical—look at the huge social and musical changes occurring between 1958 and 1968, one of the most rebellious eras in modern American history.
The Marvelous Wonderettes
Kirk Theatre/Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through September 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).