By Martin F. Kohn
Judging by the commemorative banners on the gymnasium wall, Springfield High School is just a cut above mediocre: the bowling team once made the semi-finals; the glee club once came in third in the Small School Division; the drum corps and color guard made the quarter-finals in 1952.
Thank goodness for the chess team, which has notched a string of championships over the past 10 years, from 1948 to 1958. And let’s hear it especially for Suzy, Betty Jean, Cindy Lou and Missy, the four singing seniors who call themselves the Marvelous Wonderettes.
Dressed in gowns the pastel colors of Necco Wafers or, if you’re too young to remember Necco Wafers, the colors of those little heart-shaped candies that say “Be Mine” and “Let’s Kiss,” the Wonderettes are here to entertain you at the Class of 1958’s senior prom.
And entertain they do in Hinton Battle’s Gem Theatre production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a play by Roger Bean that is really an excuse (as if one were needed) for four topnotch singers to perform girl-group and other hits from the ’50s and ’60s.
The ’60s? Didn’t you just say it was 1958?
Right, but only in the first act. The second act takes place at a class reunion 10 years later.
In Act One it’s 1958 and the girls do terrific renditions of “Lollipop,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Mr. Sandman,” “Allegheny Moon” and other songs of the era. Between numbers the girls reveal a bit about their rivalries, their jealousies, their crushes and their personalities.
Betty Jean (Holly Davis) and Cindy Lou (Marley DelDuchetto) are the alpha dogs competing for the spotlight — and the same boy. Suzy (Gretchen Bieber) and Missy (Laura Hall) are the mitigating forces. Suzy is cheery and blonde and should they ever make the Kristin Chenoweth biopic and Chenoweth is unavailable, Bieber’s a natural for the part. Missy is tall and angular, wears those cat-eye glasses with the exaggerated corners and has a serious crush on the school music teacher, Mr. Lee.
Hey, that sounds like a cue for a song. Sure enough, Hall displays her inner blues belter on “Mr. Lee.”
To his credit, Bean supplies each character with enough personality that we wonder what they’ll be like a decade later.
In Act Two we get answers, and more great music, as the radio DJs used to say. Performing at the 10-year reunion, the Wonderettes are a little life-worn but they haven’t changed much. Their songs are grittier – “You Don’t Own Me,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Respect” – and they wear the same color dresses but in bolder shades.
To distinguish his show from a mere revue, Bean has made the story fit the songs, but it feels forced. Cindy Lou, for instance, tells how she fell in love with the school bad boy, Billy Ray, the minister’s son. So she sings “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Don’t pay too much attention to the story line. Just enjoy the music, which is abundant and ebullient. Director Battle, a three-time Tony winner as a singer and dancer, has seen to it that no two songs are performed in the same manner, thanks to hand motions, dance moves and deliberately cheesy props.
Despite the instrumental accompaniment, which is good but recorded, the result is anything but cheesy. The Marvelous Wonderettes do live up to their name.
‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’
The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison St., Detroit. Wednesday-Sunday through March 28. $34.50-$42.50. 313-963-9800. http://www.gemtheatre.com