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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Winter Wonderettes and
ELFuego


Janet Rowley, Rachel Camp, Kat Borrelli
and Laura Catlaw

Photo by Chrissy K Photography
I missed The Marvelous Wonderettes, a tongue-in-cheek salute to 1960s girl groups, when 11th Hour Theatre presented it earlier this year. But I didn't have to wait long to see what I missed, because now those four singers are back in Winter Wonderettes, which 11th Hour is presenting at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. The Wonderettes shows, written by Roger Bean, have been popular in regional theatre for years, serving as a female answer to the all-male Forever Plaid franchise. (The holiday-themed Winter Wonderettes serving as a rough equivalent to Plaid Tidings, which I reviewed recently and which is still playing at the Walnut.)

There's not much to Winter Wonderettes; it's got few surprises and little excitement. It has succeeded over the years largely because it's so light and breezy, yet often it's way too light for its own good. But the two hours pass quickly, and its four stars are fun to watch.

It's 1968, and the four Wonderettes—office drones-turned-singers Betty Jean (Kat Borrelli), Missy (Rachel Camp), Cindy Lou (Laura Catlaw) and Suzy (Janet Rowley)—are performing at a hardware store's Christmas party. They're also there to brag about their husbands (or boyfriends); get into petty, tension-free arguments; and stall for time until Santa shows up (if he ever does, that is). Clad in go-go boots and silvery knee-length dresses straight out of "Shindig," they plow through about two dozen Yuletide tunes, specializing in cheerfully cheesy fifties and sixties novelties like "A Marshmallow World," "Suzy Snowflake" and "(We Wanna See) Santa Do the Mambo." They dance the Twist, the Swim, and other vintage steps with precision and exuberance. (Borrelli, who gives the show's warmest performance, also did the excellent choreography.) Camp scores comic points with a mock-seductive "Let It Snow," while Rowley and Catlaw get laughs despite their thinly written characters. And all four dive into audience participation routines with gusto.

Directed with crisp efficiency by Megan Nicole O'Brien, Winter Wonderettes isn't long on logic (one character shows up drunk at the beginning of act two, but is completely sober within five minutes). And the songs and approach may be too relentlessly sugary for some. But if the prospect of two hours of (mostly) familiar Christmas music doesn't scare you off, the Wonderettes' talent and enthusiasm should win you over.

Tabitha Allen leads a three-piece band that backs up the cast, and Julia Poiesz provides the vintage-style duds.

Winter Wonderettes runs through December 30, 2012, and is presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pa. Tickets are $15-31, with discounts available for students, and are available by calling 610-283-2230 or online at www.TheatreHorizon.org.



Sarah Doherty
Photo by Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios
ELFuego is a much more ambitious holiday show—an original musical with music, lyrics and book all written by BCKSEET Productions' Artistic Director Kate Brennan. Brennan and crew are to be commended for trying something risky. There's much to admire in ELFuego, including some clever lines, pretty melodies, and appealing performers. But while ELFuego is distinctive and memorable, with a sharply modern point of view, it's ultimately unsatisfying. It gets bogged down with repetitive songs and stagnant staging.

Santa's elves have gone on strike to protest working conditions (there's just been a fatal fire at their workshop), so Scab the Elf (what a great name!), played by the ever-delightful Sarah Doherty, kidnaps four seemingly random people to take the elves' places. There's Hope (Cindy Spitko), a harried urban professional who gets most of the wittiest lines; Frank (Jeremy Gable), a sensitive, unemployed ex-soldier who wants to be a nurse; Quran (Craig Bazan), a neurotic graduate student; and Euki (Maria Konstantinidis), a single, pregnant ex-nun (I saw the "virgin birth" jokes coming a mile away).

Jokes about an "Occupy North Pole" movement indicate that Brennan is trying to make a serious point about class struggles. That's reiterated by having the central foursome carp about how miserable their lives are. But pretty soon those issues are forgotten, and we're on to a standard TV Christmas special narrative about rediscovering the child within all of us. It's not a bad message, but the show seems like it is about to really say something significant before it drops the ball.

Each character gets one (or two) "I Want" songs—songs that tell the audience what's in the character's heart, but which fail to advance the plot. There are way too many of those songs. Fortunately, Brennan's lyrics can be quite funny. "When I think of Christmas / I wax and then I wane / I'm too afraid of shopping / And the seven pounds I'll gain," sings Spitko in one of several songs about urban angst and frustration. Later, in "I'm Fed Up to Here," Spitko complains about "Guys with tattoos / But no money for shoes." Relatable observations like this give the show a lot of its charm.

But some of the songs have remarkably poor rhymes; "tries" doesn't rhyme with "mile," and "this" doesn't rhyme with "fist." And while Brennan has written some nice melodies, her music tends to pull from a limited repertoire of chord progressions used in song after song. Conductor Patricia Brown plays thick, blocky chords on her keyboard, while her orchestrations make delicate and tasteful use of violin, cello, French horn and percussion.

Brandon King McShaffrey's direction is full of awkward transitions (especially in the confusing blackouts that open the show), and his choreography is clunky and barely serviceable. Doherty and Spitko have dynamic personalities which dominate the action, and all the performers are fine singers, although Bazan's pitch and breath control were shaky on opening night.

ELFuego has moments of great appeal and invention, but it's also got moments that are surprisingly sloppy. Here's hoping that Brennan and crew get the show more focused so it can live up to its great promise.

ELFuego runs through December 29, 2012, and is presented by BCKSEET Productions at the Skybox at The Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $28, with discounts available for students, veterans, seniors and groups, and are available by calling 267-603-3533 or online at www.bckseet.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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