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The Marvelous Wonderettes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Victoria Matlock, Farah Alvin, Bets Malone, and Beth Malone.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

There's nothing wrong with mindless fun, if it occurs in a vacuum. It's a catastrophic miscalculation for The Marvelous Wonderettes, the nuclear bomb of bubble gum that just opened at the Westside Theatre, that writer-director Roger Bean ever allows saccharine-sweet to give way to more complex flavors. It takes a three-course meal to make you realize how unsatisfying back-to-back bags of jelly beans can be.

Nutrition (or as close as this show gets) is delivered exclusively by Farah Alvin, the only member of the four-woman cast who convinces you that ensemble work doesn't mean vanishing into the woodwork. She's saddled with the least inherently interesting role possible in a musical about a girl's singing group performing at their 1958 senior prom: Missy, the nerd, complete with glasses, imperviously bobbed hair, and a tentative manner you can imagine usually relegates her to sitting alone at lunch tables.

Her diplomatic but neurotic struggles to keep everything together during the Wonderettes' bicker-heavy performance, however, melts away when she launches into Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's "Secret Love." Slicing through an ocean of adolescent soup, Missy unleashes 18 years of loneliness and longing with a violently vibrating belt that belies her carefully cultivated wallflower persona.

Missy doesn't just sing the song, she lives it; and Alvin finds in her rendition such tender but unapologetic force, you come to understand just how someone who seemed a perpetual girl is truly a woman after all. And when she elucidates her crush further, to the strains of The Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee," it's with more free-spirited, confident fizz than a street full of soda fountains.

Alvin has shone in Off-Broadway musicals such as I Love You Because and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie..., but here she demonstrates a galvanizing talent for transforming the commonplace into the unique. But if she reenergizes The Marvelous Wonderettes's rampant ancient tropes about teen love, she's the only part of it that does.

As the other girls, Victoria Matlock (the pompously pretty Cindy Lou), Beth Malone (the tomboyish Betty Jean), and Bets Malone (the streetwise Suzy), all live up to their one-note roles, never diving beneath their stereotypical surface. Cindy Lou's preening and Betty Jean's pranking are as far as the actresses and Bean take these charcoal-sketch characterizations; they're all satisfied with treading through the bop-worthy but vapid songstack ("Mr. Sandman," "Lollipop," and "Stupid Cupid" are typical entries) and the waves of taffeta that comprise Bobby Pearce's cheeky costumes.

Bean complicates matters by setting his second act at the girls' 10-year reunion. This allows him a potentially attractive opportunity, to explore how the first act's overwhipped rivalries and romances (ooh, Cindy Lou stole Betty Jean's boyfriend!) morph into adult concerns that mirror the music they now listen to. Instead, he uses it as just a lazy device for shoehorning in a second decade's pop: "You Don't Own Me" as a defiant stand against noncommittal men, Suzy's cry for "Respect" from her old-fashioned hubby, Cindy Lou's reformation and happiness dating the "Leader of the Pack," and so on.

Jukebox musicals don't have to be this cheerfully pointless: The (relatively) intelligent storytelling and thoughtful uses of familiar songs in Jersey Boys help it to still hold the standard by which other similar titles must be judged. But though Janet Miller's deceptively energetic stand-and-step choreography here vaguely resembles Sergio Trujillo's there, The Marvelous Wonderettes's void of reality disallow any further comparisons. Except, of course, for Alvin's performance, which does as much for this show as John Lloyd Young's Frankie Valli did for Jersey Boys.

Alvin centers a listless evening, dramatically with her evolution from shy to sensual (her romance with Mr. Lee really ramps up in Act Two) and comedically with everything else, giving you someone to root for and care about when nothing else even demands you pay attention. At the performance I attended, she made a fall-down-funny one-act play of collecting prom queen ballots from the audience: At one point, her eyes widened as she spotted a crumpled lump of paper in the aisle, which she picked up and caressed with a loving, terrified despair actresses typically reserve for Tennessee Williams heroines.

She then rounded on a nearby (chortling) audience member and berated her at length for violating the sanctity of the voting process, beautifully unifying shrewish schoolmarm and devoted perfectionist into a resolutely believable and hilarious young woman who hasn't yet figured out when to shut up. New York theatregoers will be very lucky indeed if Alvin herself never learns that lesson, either.

The Marvelous Wonderettes
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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