MIDVALE — The Marvelous Wonderettes is the story of four high school senior girls—all candidates to be prom queen—who entertain their classmates at their senior prom in 1958. In the second act, the characters again sing for their classmates at their 10-year reunion. Roger Bean built the story by arranging the script around over 30 hit songs from the 1950’s and 1960’s (such as “Stupid Cupid,” “It’s My Part,” and “Mr. Sandman”). Knowing this, I arrived at the Midvale amphitheater expecting a fluffy jukebox musical with a flimsy story that merely limps from one catchy tune to another. I was in for a very pleasant surprise when I found nothing of the sort.
There are only four characters in this musical. Melody D. Chapman stars as Cindy Lou, the popular girl who is obsessed with winning the prom queen crown. Cindy Lou, though, is having a falling out with her best friend Betty Jean (Paige Levanger Moore), who is heartbroken because of a recent breakup with her boyfriend. Trying to keep the peace between Cindy Lou and Betty Jean is the ditzy but loveable Suzy (Megan Smyth). Finally, Kristen Fox plays as the starry-eyed Missy, who has her secret crush that she reveals in a hilarious way during the first act. Although all four performers are undoubtedly talented, I think that Roger Bean’s script gave them far more character material to work with than is usually found in most musicals (let alone most jukebox musicals). I appreciate the actresses for mining the script for clues about who their character was and how they relate to the other people on the stage.
Each of these four ladies offers something unique to this production through their acting. Chapman and Moore effectively show how petty their characters—and most high schoolers—are in their childish disagreement (especially towards the end of the first act). Smyth was terrific in her gum chewing, clueless persona, and I absolutely loved her explanation of why the four Wonderettes were singing for the prom and not the originally booked musical group. Plus, Suzy’s obsession over her boyfriend Richie (who had pinned her a month before) was genuine and charming in its naivety. Fox was wonderfully fun as she bared her soul to her true love and displayed some vulnerability and chutzpuh during “Mr. Lee.”
In addition to the acting, all four cast members had wonderful voices, although the opening number was a bit rough. The four-part harmonies (under the supervision of music director Janzell Luika Kim Tutor) that were in many of the songs were simply gorgeous (especially “Lollipop;” “All I Have To Do Is Dream;” and “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight”) and added a complexity that I had never heard in many of these classic pop songs. Chapman’s belting during “Son of a Preacher Man” and Smyth’s dazzling “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” were vocal highlights that did full justice to these classic songs.
Karen Chatterton directed this cast of singing sensations with a high degree of skill. It could be so easy for a director to let their cast only express character during the dialogue in the play. However, Chatterton ensured that during the songs, each actor moved and sang in distinctive ways that constantly reminded me of who these young ladies were. For example, Missy was often a little more stiff and awkward in her choreography; at first, I didn’t like how the performance looked. But as I learned more about the character of Missy, I realized that she wasn’t as comfortable on stage as her friends. What in the first 20 minutes of the play looked like awkward casting I came to see as a brilliant directing and acting choice. I also appreciated Chatterton’s period choreography, which was full of the smooth sways and steps that were in vogue for the girl groups of the time.
I thought the costumes (designed by Lindsay Beardall) for this play were adorable. The 1950’s prom dresses were bright and colorful and added to the festive mood of a high school prom. The clothes that the women wore ten years later looked like they were from a page in a 1968 JC Penney catalog. More importantly, the second act costumes also reflected the life changes the characters had passed through in the previous ten years. Their clothes made their changes in behavior more believable and added to their maturity.
One final note: The opening night performance was moved to a backup stage in the bowery in the Midvale City Park due to high winds and the threat of rain. As I waited for the show to start, I watched stage hands and other staff adjust lights, move scenery, and prepare for the show to be in a new location. The audience even got to watch the sound and microphone checks because the sound system probably wasn’t ready before the audience was allowed to take their seat. Instead of making me nervous about the show, all this busy-ness actually excited me for what I was about to see. The Midvale Arts Council staff was so professional and organized as they prepared for the show that I couldn’t detect any panic in the air. There were absolutely no indications that The Marvelous Wonderttes would be anything less than impeccable, despite the change in venue.
In short, I highly recommend this production of The Marvelous Wonderettes to anyone. It exceeded my expectations in several ways and I commend the hard working artists, designers, and technicians for their product.