SALT LAKE CITY — Do you like music from the ’50s and ’60s? Then the Grand Theatre has the show for you: The Marvelous Wonderettes. It’s the story of a high school girl group who sings classic songs like “Lollipop,” “Heatwave,” and “Mr. Sandman” at their 1958 prom and 1968 reunion.
The four ladies (“with voices as big as their hair,” the program states) come in four flavors, I mean, personalities: there’s the nerdy, bespectacled Missy (played by Breezy Bassett), perky, gregarious Suzy (played by Emily Woods), bitter and boyish BJ (played by Britty Marie), and queen bee Cindy Lou (played by Natalie Peterson, who also played Missy in the Grand’s 2011 production of the same show). The Marvelous Wonderettes is a fairly popular show in Utah, and is put on every year or so somewhere around the state. It was originally written by Roger Bean and premiered off-Broadway in 1999. The stage director and choreographer for this production was Jim Christian.
While the show is technically a musical comedy, it’s really more of a musical revue like local geriatric favorite Forever Plaid; both shows have limited characters, scenes, and story. The plot treads lightly on the girls’ lives and loves, with some vying for the same boy (naturally—how else could they sing songs like “Lipstick on Your Collar”?) But the script exists mainly to move the show from one classic song for another.
And what music it is! There are 30 songs here, split between ’50s pop and ’60s R&B, sung warmly and tightly by the four actresses. The women particularly shined in the first act with their fabulous voices melding to create some truly silky smooth moments of ’50s harmony. In the second act, I did think it was a little unfair of the show to ask mortal singers to tackle Aretha Frankin’s monster jam “Respect” since few but the Queen of Soul (who passed away the day before) can do it justice. But the show is what it is.
This is the kind of show that naturally leads the audience to ask one uniform question as they exit: which girl did you like best? I thoroughly enjoyed Bassett’s Missy, who possessed the most soulful voice of the bunch. However, it seems (judging by the definitely-not-rigged voting system for prom queen) Wood’s Suzy was the most marvelous of the Wonderettes. A day after the show, I still had her sweet call-and-response with Missy from “It’s in His Kiss” stuck in my head, with Wood’s perky voice clear as a bell. I’d pay hard money to see a recording of her as Tracy Turnblad in last year’s Hairspray. Maybe it was the ’60s hairdos and music, but she seems born to play roles from the era, and I hope to see her embody it again.
Peterson was perfectly vain as tiara-hungry socialite Cindy Lou, although I had a harder time figuring out the character of BJ, probably because she was constantly flitting between stage-face-nice and green-with-envy. I do think this production could benefit from defining her character a bit more.
I was surprised at the seating arrangement for this production. Instead of sitting in the regular seats, the Grand has constructed stadium seating on the stage itself to create a smaller theater. (They’re calling it Backstage at the Grand, although the show isn’t backstage.) I missed the regular seating (the Grand is one of my favorite theaters in the state), but the arrangement did allow the audience to be much closer to the actors and gave the feeling of a fuller house. Because the show only contains four characters, two scenes and one slight scene change, the choice to erect the temporary seating seems like a wise choice.
Technically, the show was simple but on solid footing. Scenic designer Halee Rasmussen’s tinsel backdrop for Act II created some cool lighting effects (with lighting by Seth Miller), and the mics and mix between the live voices and canned track by sound designer Adam Day were near perfect.
Overall, the Grand Theatre’s production of The Marvelous Wonderettes offers an enjoyable evening of classic pop songs sung by some talented local voices. Smiles abounded in the audience throughout the night, and several people offered a standing ovation to the cast. While the characters and plot are on the light side, it’s a fun musical revue. And when the music and singers are at their best, the good feelings are indeed “like a heatwave.”