Story: It’s the night of the 1958 senior prom at good old Springfield High School. Entertainment was to have been provided by the boys glee club, but its lead singer, Billy Ray Patton, was suspended from school after being caught smoking.
In steps our intrepid quartet, The Marvelous Wonderettes. Missy, Suzy, Cindy Lou and Betty Jean answer the bell with enthusiasm if not the most polished stage presence, responding to an urgent request by Mr. Lee, a teacher at Springfield High who led their team in a state song leaders’ competition. They know the lyrics to Mr. Sandman, though, and so entertainment for the prom is underway.
The girls’ zest for performing is matched by their need to showcase their personal lives. Suzy reveals that her boyfriend is none other than Ritchie Stevens, who is handling the lights for the evening’s festivities. After some prodding, Missy admits that she has a crush on Mr. Lee. And Cindy Lou is not above stealing the attentions of Betty Jean’s guy, Johnny.
All four singers happen to be competing with Judy Carter, an absent classmate, for the title of Prom Queen. The quartet dispatches a number of pop tunes that correspond more or less to the prom’s theme, “Marvelous Dreams,” and even use a paper “dreamcatcher” to segue into various numbers.
A decade later, the girls reunite for their class’ 10th year reunion. The hit tunes have changed and so have the lives of The Marvelous Wonderettes. Suzy married Ritchie and is now pregnant, while Missy has been dating Mr. Lee for five years.
Betty Jean has been working since graduation at the local hardware store along with her husband Johnny, and her marriage is as bumpy as Suzy’s. Cindy Lou actually left town and tried unsuccessfully to grab the brass ring as an actress in Hollywood before returning to Springfield.
Life has given The Marvelous Wonderettes their share of challenges, but they’re back at the Springfield High School gym to ensure a good time for the Class of ‘58 once again.
Highlights: The Rep does its best to ward off the frigid feelings of winter with a pleasant enough rendition of this popular jukebox musical first performed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 1999.
Other Info: Augustin Family Artistic Director Steven Woolf writes in his currrent letter to subscribers that The Marvelous Wonderettes “is a bit of a departure from our usual January choice, but when I found it had never been produced in St. Louis before, I simply couldn’t pass up the chance to bring you a little joy. The weather may be cold and dreary, but in the theatre we’ve got sweetness, warmth and frivolity that will certainly lift your spirits.”
True that. As far as jukebox musicals go, though, The Marvelous Wonderettes is among the fluffiest and most lightweight in content as well as execution. It’s all handled professionally enough by director/choreographer Melissa Rain Anderson and her effervescent quartet of performers. There just isn’t a whole lot there.
Still, there’s no denying that Morgan Kirner as Missy, Leanne Smith as Suzy, Chiara Trentalange as Cindy Lou and Iris Beaumier as Betty Jean have an infectious way with a couple of dozen pop standards from the 1950s and ‘60s. They even show their skills doing Springfield High’s ‘Chipmunk Cheer.’
Each of the singers displays a pleasing voice as well as some stylish moves in the tradition of the “girl groups” of the era, thanks to Anderson’s terpsichorean contributions. They’re good delivering the show’s abundant comic lines, too, combining physical comedy with dirty looks and knowing glances at their colleagues.
Dorothy Marshall Englis dresses them in the ‘safe’ style of the ‘50s for Act I as well as go-go boots and flashier attire in Act II of the breezy musical, which zips along in less than two hours including intermission under Anderson's watchful eye.
Lollipop, Lipstick on Your Collar, Dream Lover, Heatwave, It’s My Party, You Don’t Own Me, Son of a Preacher Man, Leader of the Pack and It’s in His Kiss are among the recognizable tunes warbled by the Wonderettes, songs which creator Bean weaves cleverly into his script. Bean collaborated with Brian William Baker on the vocal arrangements, with musical arrangements by Baker and orchestrations courtesy of Michael Borth.
Adam Koch’s scenic design is an amusing and recognizable depiction of a high school gym of the era, complete with a basketball court floor and exit signs in the rear. There’s a side table at the front of stage right that holds a punch bowl in Act I and bottles of booze at the 10-year reunion, plus an archway of brightly colored balloons to enhance the prom look.
Music director Joshua Zecher-Ross conducts the lively band hidden behind the set, which includes guitarist Steve Schenkel, drummer Alan Schilling, Mike Buerk on reeds and both Joe Neske and Zecher-Ross on the keyboards.
Rusty Wandall’s well-appointed sound design features introductions by the ‘school principal,’ while Peter Sargent’s lighting playfully alludes to the presence of the somewhat dimwitted Ritchie in the gym’s lighting booth.
The show’s best moment on opening night was the selection of an audience member to portray the elusive Mr. Lee. The gentleman who reluctantly walked on stage brought his best deadpan look with him, to the delight of the audience and doubtless the performers as well.
The Marvelous Wonderettes has played Off-Broadway in a couple of productions, including a 2016 revival, and also has spawned a number of sequels, so there’s definitely a market for its music and story. If you’re in the mood for a little Respect, check out The Marvelous Wonderettes and step back in time when you were younger and high school was the place to be.
Musical: The Marvelous Wonderettes
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 28
Tickets: $18.50-$89; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey