Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Marvelous Wonderettes
The songs in The Marvelous Wonderettes are well-known hits from the 1950s and '60s, full of the innocent yearning of the middle-class Eisenhower years in act one, giving way to a slightly more knowing feel in the pop tunes of the second half, when the class of '58 has its ten year reunion. The songs of the Chordettes and the Maguire Sisters give way to singers like the Fifth Dimension and Aretha Franklin. All songs are sung beautifully, with the help of a lovely off-stage live band.
And everything's great through act one, under the direction of Melissa Rain Anderson, on the Repertory Theatre's main stage: four vivacious teenaged girls in sherbet-colored dresses get their lucky break, performing a "hit parade" of great old songs at the senior prom. The earnest, lighthearted characterizations of the four actresses are revealed through girlish friendships and rivalries, and the 1950s "good girl" tunes are lined up like pearls on a string.
The only bump in the road comes about 15 minutes after intermission, just when I began to wonder, admiringly: "do all these lovely, well-known songs exist in service of the charming story, or does the story exalt the songs?" The show (in its present form) debuted in Los Angeles in 2007, and the book, by Roger Bean, seemed very strong. Both the music and story were perfectly symbiotic, right up through Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be with You," in act two. It's sung here by Iris Beaumier, as Betty Jean, in this production's final plausible moment.
After that, there's an abrupt shifting of gears: The Marvelous Wonderettes stops being a story, and transforms into something more like a broad comic revue. Betty Jean's off-stage heartbreak turns into a sort of weird joke when she sings a bathetic version of "It's My Party" (made famous by Lesley Gore). That was followed, on opening night, by a little stunned silence, and a notably wan round of applause, from an audience that perhaps felt a little betrayed. Till that moment, the regular applause was much warmer and more eager.
And up till then, the characterizations all had a kind of comical reality to them, thanks to very smart actresses and director Anderson, too. But from here on out, they had us trapped: it was too late to sneak out during intermission, once the characters and story are suddenly diminished and made unreal. It's just a straight-up pastiche in the final half hour or so.
It's still fun, but maybe it's acted and directed too seriously up till then. Maybe this production was fundamentally misconceived, leading us down the wrong path in the first hour and change. Perhaps there's some additional, chiffon-thin layer of brilliant satire, a skein of parody, that's missing in the early 2/3rds of this Repertory Theatre staging. Maybe it's supposed to be a bit of a drag show, all along.
In that sense, the great characters these girls have built on stage seem to become their undoing. Ms. Beaumier has a pert defiance as Betty Jean; Morgan Kirner (as Missy) has great power in her pop singing, and a lovely way of being the funny, nerdy girl who keeps things organized throughout; and Leanne Smith is the ditzy blonde, especially hilarious at the outset of "Leader of the Pack." Chiara Trentalange rounds out the quartet as Cindy Lou, a formidable beauty who fits the 1950s glamorous idiom to a T, even in her unquenchable thirst to be crowned Springfield's homecoming queen of 1958.
A lovely, but perhaps overly credulous staging of a (probably) more deeply ironic piece, The Marvelous Wonderettes runs through January 28, 2018, at the Browning Main-Stage in the Loretto-Hilton theater complex, on the campus of Webster University. For more information visit www.repstl.org
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