Full-bore nostalgia trip for the baby boomer crowd
The Marvelous Wondrettes
American Heartland Theatre
As the last of the Halloween-themed shows finish their run, the Kansas City theatre scene ramps up for the holidays. All across the metro area, venues large and small are taking on the festive spirit in their productions. All the old reliable workhorses are making their traditional appearance, and quite a few new faces too. Among the latter is The Marvelous Wonderettes, which opened Wednesday night at the American Heartland Theatre. This is light-hearted fare, a musical revue geared unabashedly for the nostalgia market. It makes no apologies for this, and asks only to be taken on its own merits. To do so is to enjoy an unpretentious show that delivers precisely what its audience asks of it.
The show is essentially two, with songs of the late fifties and sixties tied together through the common plotline. In the first act, we are introduced to the Wonderettes: Missy (Colleen Grate), Suzy (Liz Clark Golson), Cindy Lou (Molly Denninghoff) and Betty Jean (Jessalyn Kincaid), a musical group of four glee club students at Springfield High. It is 1958 and the night of the prom. With the scheduled entertainment unable to come, the four step into the breach, performing a series of jukebox-friendly tunes ("Lollipop", "All I Have To Do Is Dream", "Secret Love") intersped with enough bits of story to keep the show moving along. As is traditional with the genre, plotting is minimal: the story is there to get us to the next song, nothing more. As such, the non-singing parts are kept brisk and light, aiming for laughter more often than not and, judging by the opening night crowd, succeeding consistently.
In the second act, the story takes a little more prominence. Ten years have passed, and the girls have returned for their reunion. A lot has happened, and it is interesting to see who has and has not changed. Missy is essentially the same person, only ten years older. Betty Jean and Cindy Lou have matured; life has kicked them around a bit, and they see the world now through different eyes. Even Suzy, who stayed in town with her high school sweetheart, is starting to think hard about what's going on in her life.
All these are reflected in their songs: we go from Missy's "It's In His Kiss" and "Wedding Bell Blues" to Betty Jean's "It's My Party" and Cindy Lou belting out "Son of a Preacher Man" (it should be noted here that Ms Denninghoff really stands out for this sequence, bringing out the jaded cynicism of the character. A surprising and not unwelcome bit of depth to the candyfloss). In the end, however, the three rally around Suzy, facing the first real crises of her life, and help her find the strength to carry on.
It must be said that the cast and crew both have gone to extensive effort to
recreate the eras in question. The 1958 prom is well done, with set design and wardrobe just right. The live band, visible throughout the production, start off in crew-cuts and tuxedos, and the Wonderettes in pastels and period hairstyles. When the sixties roll around, the set is changed accordingly, as are the characters: the Wonderettes have turned in their prom pumps for Nancy Sinatra boots, and the school gym has taken on a flower power theme. The only real weakness is here, in that the live band have been apparently decked out in everything from the closeout bin of the Spencer Gifts costume department. Overall, however, care and attention have clearly been taken in bringing back the eras of the songs performed. Which brings us to the music.
A revue lives or dies by its songs. Choice of music, the mood set, performance are all vital. In this case we are pleased to report that the principals all do a marvellous job in recreating the classic girl group sound, particularly with the 1950s numbers. They present a good cross-section of numbers from the time, their singing confident and polished. As reflections of their times, the 1960s numbers are a bit more varied, not quite as bubbly and innocent as the former, but this change is only natural and is carried off well by the performers. There are really no weak links in the cast to speak of, and overall the production comes across as solid and professional.
In fact, the only really jarring note one can think of is at the end. The story resolved, friends reunited, and the show obviously well and truly over, the girls suddenly decide to do "one more song," at which point everyone pulls out Santa hats and barnstorm through a medley of oldies holiday songs: think "Little Saint Nick" and you're on the right track. Bells are jingled, a tree is brought out and rocked around; tinsel happens. The whole sequence feels so utterly and egregiously tacked-on that one wonders if they couldn't have found a way of easing into it, somehow.
This, however, is a minor quibble. Overall, The Marvellous Wonderettes is an interesting and ultimately enjoyable, if shallow, romp through the music of two bygone eras. It knows what it is, and delivers exactly what it promises.
For the audience at the American Heartland Theatre Wednesday night, it was just what they were looking for. And as this reviewer left the theatre, she could not help but reflect on her own era, and wonder what nostalgia-based musicals she has to look forward to in say, twenty years. Will there be dancers in leg warmers and feathered hair? A medley of grunge hits, perhaps?
Somehow, we just don't see it happening.