Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of Grace
And they sing well. Despite the hideous dresses and corny dance routines - indeed, in spite of every bit of comedy woven into the script of The Marvelous Wonderettes, it never, ever forgets that its main purpose is to have four talented performers sing upwards of thirty classics. But with the singing - between songs and in the staging during them - comes the creation of four distinct characters.
Kim Huber is Missy, the eyeglasses-wearing, control-geek of the bunch. Missy is the one who sewed the girls' costumes, counts out the dance steps under her breath for the other girls, and has a crush on a teacher when everyone else has an actual boyfriend. Kirsten Chandler is Cindy Lou, the "pretty one." Which is to say, Cindy Lou knows that she's pretty and simply expects the other girls to yield up the spotlight in her favor. Julie Dixon Jackson is Betty Jean, from whom Cindy Lou has stolen a song and a good deal more. Rounding out the bunch is Bets Malone, as playfully goofy Suzy, who plants her chewing gum on her microphone when she needs to concentrate on singing, and is extremely excited since she just got "pinned" by the guy working the lights.
The characters of the individual Wonderettes make themselves apparent as the four girls provide prom entertainment. They have a paper "cootie-catcher" which they have renamed a "dream catcher" and use to determine which of them will next sing about her dream lover. It's hokey, but it's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from teenage girls thinking they're providing touching prom entertainment - and it's funny because of it. The problem is, there isn't all that much of it, and, in places, the show's first act risks becoming only a concert. In an effort to fill the void, author Roger Bean has added an "environmental theatre" element, by which the audience members are all considered prom attendees. At one point, we are asked to fill out "prom queen" ballots, and the show stops as the girls wait for us all to pass in our ballots for tabulation. It's all for naught, though; the prom queen is predetermined by the script, and it leaves you wondering why they even bothered.
The second act finds the Wonderettes coming back together for a repeat performance at their class's ten year reunion. This offers the opportunity for another decade's worth of songs (and some equally funny costumes - credit designer Sharell Martin). During their reunion, each singer has a three-song set in which she explains (sometimes with a little narration) what has happened to her in the intervening years. It is here that the show's songs move closer to being used in a traditional musical theatre sense - expressing the character's emotions - rather than simply being performance pieces. One Wonderette might explain her love life in one song, and the others may offer her advice in the next. The problem here is that the song choices don't entirely fit the plot they're squeezed into. At one point, the songs "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Leader of the Pack" follow each other as descriptions of the same guy. While it's certainly possible for a preacher's son to be a wild, tough kid, it's hard to reconcile "when his daddy would visit he'd come along" from "Preacher Man" with "My folks were always putting him down/They said he came from the wrong side of town" from "Pack." And I'm not entirely certain that the correct response to a woman with a cheating man is "Tell Him" ("Tell him that you're never gonna leave him/Tell him that you're always gonna love him"). Either the plot has to change to better fit the songs, or the songs do.
Near the end of the show, Bets Malone leads the Wonderettes in a rousing version of "Respect." It's one of the precious few places in the show where the talented cast threatens to let go of traditional song stylings and just let loose with the powerhouse voices we all know they have. A few more well-chosen vocally explosive moments in the second act could really tear the roof off the place.
The Marvelous Wonderettes runs at the El Portal Forum Theatre through November 26, 2006. For tickets and information, see www.marvelouswonderettes.com.
David Elzer and Peter Schneider and Marvelous Dreams LLC present The Marvelous Wonderettes. Written and Directed by Roger Bean. Choreography by Janet Miller; Musical Direction by Allen Everman II; Orchestrations by Brian Baker; Scenic Design by Kurk Boetcher; Lighting Design by Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design by Sharell Martin; Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers; Production Mixer Brian Svoboda; Wig Design by Jeff Weeks; Stage Manager Pat Loeb; General Manager Michael Sanfilippo; Marketing & P.R. by DEMAND PR.
Photo: Michael Lamont