By Judith Cookis Rubens
The high school experience is so brilliantly universal, that most people – no matter what year they graduated – can relate to the first love and heartbreak that permeate those crucial teenage years.
It’s a fitting backdrop, then, to meet “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a bubbly quartet of high school girlfriends who fill in as the last-minute entertainment at their Springfield High School senior prom in 1958. There’s blonde, slightly conceited Cindy Lou; her best friend and wise-cracking arch rival, Betty Jean; the ditzy, cheerful Suzy; and slightly nerdy teacher’s pet, Missy. Oh, and did we mention all the ladies are competing against one another for the prom queen title?
“The Marvelous Wonderettes,” now at Farmers Alley Theatre, is a pleasing musical flashback to the shoop, shoop hits of the ’50s (“Mr. Sandman,” Lollipop,” “Stupid Cupid”), alongside more soulful ’60s tunes (“You Don’t Own Me,” “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Respect”). It’s more fleshed-out songbook than a true, full-length musical. But once you get a few songs in, you realize there’s a lot going on, even within the songs, to tell the story of changing friendships and evolving lives.
The second act cleverly skips ahead 10 years, finding the girls reunited and performing (where else?) at their 10-year high school reunion. Things haven’t gone quite as planned for any of them, but they still find the perfect song to explain it all. This time around, the more mature ladies revel in ’60s classics by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Lesley Gore and others.
Just as the hit musical “Mamma Mia!” built a clever storyline around Abba songs, creator Roger Bean manages to knit the tunes together so they feel authentically part of these girls’ lives. Lyrics are tweaked only slightly, to great comic effect. Without a ton of dialogue in between to work with, director/choreographer Sandra Simpson rightly uses tightly synchronized moves, playful props, and body language to help tell the story.
But it’s these “girls” who deserve heaps of credit for producing an entertaining evening. Performing more than two dozen hits with only a short intermission, this quartet harmonizes beautifully, moves non-stop, and never misses a note, step or campy wink. It’s, quite simply, amazing. Not to mention highly unlikely to spot such true triple threats on smaller local stages these days.
Each woman also delivers a splendid solo performance.
Amanda Martin’s Cindy Lou is sugary sweet in songs like “Lucky Lips,” but also proves perfectly suited for the soulful “Son of a Preacher Man.” As Cindy’s frenemy, Betty Jean, Sandy Zwier wins us over quickly with her pranks, loud-mouth attitude, and her almost pathological devotion to a cheating boyfriend. But it’s Zwier’s spunky rendition of “Lipstick on Your Collar” that leaves a lasting impression.
Denene Mulay Koch has a ball playing Missy, the no-nonsense, mother-type of the group. When Missy quietly unveils her secret crush on a teacher (cue The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee”), Koch gets her chance to shine and play up the laughs.
However, it’s Ann Sanders, as Prom Queen Suzy, who pulls off the greatest transformation of the group. Sanders, an accomplished Broadway performer, keeps up Suzy’s slightly grating baby-girl voice and spacey persona through many tricky songs. It’s a long way to go for a payoff, but her surprise vocal turn (within a “Glee”-worthy mash-up of “Rescue Me” and Aretha’s “Respect”) is definitely worth the set up.
This marvelous ride stays on course with help from musical director Marie McColley Kerstetter, who also leads the live orchestra. While there are plenty of campy nods and winks here, nothing detracts from the stellar singing.
Costumes and crucial hair design by Elaine Kauffman and Garrylee McCormack help evoke the two time periods. Well-executed lighting by Lanford J. Potts and crew becomes a clever fifth player in this show.
Farmers Alley, in honor of this candy-coated musical treat, stages the show with cabaret-style table seating and complimentary desserts and coffee/cocoa before the start.
That, combined with a healthy dose of audience participation (game patrons double as teachers referenced in the show), makes for a delicious theater experience.
‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 26, plus Tuesday, Dec. 21; no performances Dec. 24-25. $29-$33. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com