Review: “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a delightful trip down memory lane showcasing 50’s and 60’s pop hits, at 6th Street Playhouse through May 13, 2012
Flashback: It’s 1958 and prom night at Springfield High School. The live entertainment is The Marvelous Wonderettes, four best girlfriends, high school seniors—Betty Jean (Shari Hopkinson), Cindy Lou (Ashley Rose McKenna), Missy (Katie Veale) and Suzy (Julianne Lorenzen) who hit the sweet spot in four part harmony. Baby Boomers especially will enjoy 6th Street Playhouse’s dynamic musical review The Marvelous Wonderettes, Roger Bean’s long-running Los Angeles and Off Broadway hit which won the 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Musical. Directed by Craig Miller, 6th Street’s Artistic Director, and Janis Wilson, Musical Director, with choreography by Alise Girard, the show features 35 oldies from the 1950’s and 1960’s, 28 of which are sung in glorious four part harmony. There’s no real plot to speak of, save for some fairly innocent high school antics; the drama showcases the music which is a delightful end in itself.
The girls start out with Mr. Sandman and that all time favorite, Lollipop, both popularized by the Chordettes, and then move on to Dreamlover and Hold me Thrill Me, Kiss Me, and other 1950′s classics, demonstrating a solid mastery of the beloved and quite difficult tradition of vocal harmonizing. And the fun they’re having is infectious! You’ll have to work out your politics for how to silence the guy next to you who breaks out in his own crackly soprano rendition of one of these oldies. Act I’s prom theme is “All I Have to Do Is Dream/Dream Lover” and a dreamcatcher is used as a vehicle for each girl to dedicate a song to her special love. Over the course of their special prom performance, some unexpected cracks emerge in the tight gal-pal bond—Cindy Lou steals Betty Jean’s Alleghemy Moon solo, and her boyfriend, and the two bicker about it by blowing liquid soap bubbles over each other. The music is cotton candy sweet and so are Tracy Hinman Sigrist’s very colorful retro costumes—50’s prom dresses in pastel satins with full skirts and crinolines and matching dyed shoes. Act I closes with the audience voting on prom queen, which is quite exciting until you discover that the ballot you and the rest of the audience has cast is hastily thrown out in a dramatic gesture made by one of the girls and never counted.
Act II is set in 1968 and picks up at Springfield High School Class of 1958’s 10-Year Reunion and the Marvelous Wonderettes open with Heatwave. During the course of the reunion, we learn what has happened in each of the girl’s lives since graduation and it turns out that each of them is suffering in some way over love. Missy, burnt out and frustrated, has been dating the same guy for five years with no marriage proposal in site and Suzy is very pregnant and her husband is cheating on her. Each of four young women sings a powerful medley of songs that fits her situation and the girls support each other and discover strength and healing in friendship.
The show, pleasant enough, somehow aches for more depth, especially in Act II. All the rich promise of 1968—the peak of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention, Black Power demonstrations at the Summer Olympics, Feminist demonstrations at the Miss America pageant, and so much more—is basically ignored and it appears that Springfield is just another small suburban enclave looking inward. Never really tapping into the collective mindset of our country’s most rebellious decade, nor its rich and complex zeitgeist, seems a bit of cop-out for playwright Roger Bean who has gone on to make a career on the Wonderettes and sequels like Winter Wonderettes. The toe-tapping music itself, though, is fabulous and 6th Street and each of its four singers deliver a thoroughly enjoyable salute to girly pop.
Highlights of the show include vibrant four-part harmony in Mr. Sandman, Lollipop, and Maybe.
Santa Rosa resident Ashley Rose McKenna in her debut performance at 6th Street beams in Act I as the petite brunette trickster Cindy Lou. She delivers a lush Allegheny Moon and follows through in Act II with an energetic Son of a Preacher Man and Leader of the Pack and a tender, pleading and heartfelt Maybe, with back-up by the talented ensemble, possibly the evening’s most poignant offering.
Rohnert Park resident Katie Veale also makes her 6th Street debut as Missy, a sweet nerdish girl in glasses who’s also a serious soprano, delivers a very moving It’s In His Kiss and Wedding Bell Blues as she is joined by the ensemble.
In addition to her consistently strong singing, Shari Hopkinson, part of 6th Street’s full-time team, brings compelling soul and a rich willfulness to Betty Jean, while Julianne Lorenzen adds a dose of authentic vulnerability to Suzy.
And behind a sheer curtain in back of the stage action is the talented six member band that keeps the rich music flowing all evening long. Led by Janis Dunson Wilson (conductor/keyboards), the group includes Casey Jones (saxophones), Chad Baker (guitar), Steve Hoffman (bass) and Laurie Bilbro (bass) and Mateo Dillaway (drums).
Up Next at 6th Street Playouse: Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins recounts the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy, tone deaf socialite who dreamed of being a great opera singer. Her efforts to become a great coloratura soprano led to fame and notoriety with annual private recitals at the Ritz Carlton Hotel; a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944; and an impressive list of celebrity fans of her day including Cole Porter, Enrico Caruso and Tallulah Bankhead. Memories and experiences are recalled by her accompanist and friend, Cosmé McMoon in this poignant comedy that celebrates the spirit of a woman who defied criticism and followed her bliss. Directed by Michael Fontaine, Souvenir features award-winning actress Mary Gannon Graham as Florence Foster Jenkins (who dazzled as Patsy Cline in Always…Patsy Cline at 6th Street in 2010) and John Shillington as accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. May 11 to May 27, 2012, part of 6th Street’s Studio Theatre Series.
Another 1968, with grit and rebellion: Witness the powerful richness of the year 1968—twelve months of culture shifting, life-changing, memory stamping events, and explore the Bay Area’s pivotal role, at the Oakland Museum’s fabulous new 1968 Exhibit, through August 19, 2012.
Details: The Marvelous Wonderettes ends May 13, 2012. 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA, Performances: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 p.m. and Sundays 2 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $35. For more information: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com or phone 707.523.4185.