By Bridgette M. Redman
When tensions are running high between the four friends performing at their 1958 senior prom, Suzy hisses a phrase of encouragement reminding her friend to “Be Marvelous!”
It wasn’t a reminder that any of the four actresses or their musical and technical crew needed to receive. From start to finish, they were marvelous, making the performance at the Mason Street Warehouse in downtown Saugatuck an evening of pure delight.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes” doubles as the title of the musical and the name of the girl’s glee group that is performing at the prom. The four seniors — and four of five contestants for the title of prom queen — were pulled in at the last minute to perform after the president of the boy’s glee club got himself in trouble and they were barred from the prom.
In the first act, they sing such ’50s favorites as “Mr. Sandman,” “Lollipop,” “Lipstick on Your Collar,” and “Born Too Late.” In the second act, they move forward to their 10-year reunion and are singing ’60s standards such as “It’s In His Kiss,” “It’s My Party,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” and “Rescue Me.”
While no new music was written for this musical, it isn’t merely an oldies revue. Instead, the show’s creator Roger Bean chose songs from the ’50s for the first act and the ’60s for the second act that tell the story of these four women and the choices that are changing their lives and their friendships.
Like most of the songs from that period, “The Marvelous Wonderettres” bops along in a high-energetic and often silly fashion with moments of tenderness and poignancy along the way. Bean was clever in his writing and it is well worth paying attention to the small details in the first act, because they’ll come around again in new ways in the second act.
Each of the four actresses was capable of wowing the crowd and frequently did so. They excelled equally at harmonizing in their quartet and at belting out solos. They also played archetypes that were familiar while still being authentic.
Melissa Robinette as Betty Jean was a less naive version of Lucille Ball with a nutty humor, quirky physicality, and a talent for sound effects. Kelly Carey’s Cindy Lou was self-absorbed and willing to run roughshod over the feelings of her friends. Gina Milo’s Suzy was the cute, perky blonde who was always sweet if a big goofy. Abby Mueller’s Missy ends up being the surprise flower in the bouquet. She blossoms beautifully in the show from the very practical, level-headed one with a secret love to a passionate woman who will be the one who can hold the four together.
Like the other shows this season at Mason Street Warehouse, there wasn’t much of a fourth wall dividing the performers from the audience, as there was a healthy degree of audience participation. Everyone was asked to vote on who the prom queen should be and the actresses ran through the audience collecting the votes. The audience also makes up several of the characters who are talked about by the girls.
For two hours, these women never leave the stage (except to go into the audience and for intermission) and are singing, dancing, playing pranks, and putting in peppy, high-energy performances worthy of the song leaders that their characters are for their school. It’s an impressive performance that they make look easy.
Director and choreographer Kurt Stamm (who is also the Mason Street Warehouse artistic director) doesn’t miss a single opportunity for humor without ever pandering to the audience or leading the actresses away from their character just to get a laugh. From the choice of props to the way the girls interact, everything works together to support a unified theme of marvelous dreams.
The pacing never misses a step, not even in the second act where the girls are now women who are gathering at their 10-year reunion. Their marvelous dreams are drooping and they find the music to express their heartaches and to find the cures.
The technical staff deserves as many kudos as the artistic staff with their creations telling the story with production values that were easily on par with the artistic performances. Jon Reeves designed a brightly colored set that beautifully evoked both of the two periods with only minor changes. The boys and girls locker room doors (opening up to the tiled walls behind them) established that despite all the flowers and decorations, it was still a high school gymnasium.
Costume designer Darlene Christopher’s costumes matched the set colors while still letting each Wonderette stand out. They start out in calf-length, lacy prom dresses of green, blue, orange and pink. When they return a decade later, they still have their same colors, but the neon versions and the outfits are sparkly with sequins rather than covered in lace. While the prom dresses were designed to let the Wonderettes dance in full ’50s style, it was the second set of costumes that allowed for a number of choices that underlined where each woman was. Indeed, while they were perfectly matched in the first act, in the second act, Christopher’s costume choices make you wonder whether the girls will ever manage to harmonize again. While they all have the same costumes, the removal of different pieces at different times let the Wonderettes be as visually out of synch as they are in their relationships.
In the role of lighting designer, Jennifer Kules gets far more attention in “The Marvelous Wonderettes” than is usual in most theatrical performances. Suzy’s boyfriend is who the characters claim is in the light booth, and she’ll often talk to him from the stage. “He” responds with light cues, special effects and flashes. All is very cleverly done, particularly the projections on the wall.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes'” every detail combined to create a performance that lived up to its superlative title. And like today’s movies with their after-credits add-ons, pay attention to the music playing as you leave for one final tidbit about the women’s lives.
‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’
Mason Street Warehouse, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 22. $26-$36.50. 269-857-4898. http://www.masonstreetwarehouse.org.