CEDAR CITY — It’s hard to imagine a more fitting title for The Marvelous Wonderettes at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. At the risk of sounding cliché, marvelous and wonderful truly are the best words to describe this show.
It’s not hard to see why. The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s staff brought in the musical’s creator, Roger Bean, to direct the show; the play’s original music director, Brian William Baker, was hired for musical direction; and Bets Malone (who created the role of Suzy) choreographed the production. Under the guidance of the creative team who made the show successful in its original iterations and off-Broadway, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a nostalgic, sweet, and fun production.
Act One of The Marvelous Wonderettes tells the story of four 1958 high school prom queen candidates who are asked to sing for their senior prom in their capacity as song leaders. Act Two takes place at their ten year reunion in 1968 when the four are reunited to sing again for their classmates, an occasion that permits the audience to learn about how the four have grown up, changed, and matured over the preceding decade. Liberally peppered with classic songs from the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Marvelous Wonderettes is intended to be a fun escapist piece of entertainment.
The last time I saw The Marvelous Wonderettes, I was surprised at how interesting the story was. When I see a jukebox musical I keep in mind what I call “the Crazy for You rule” : in order to be successful as a piece of theater, a jukebox musical must have at least the degree of story cohesion and character intelligence of Crazy for You. The Marvelous Wonderettes surpasses this minimum threshold easily. Under Bean’s direction, the character development starts in the first minutes of the play and continues through almost every scene and song. “Lucky Lips,” for example was excellent in showing the tension between Cindy Lou and Betty Jean. Similarly, the emotional changes for Suzy during her second act medley were more varied than what many lead characters in traditional musicals (such as in The Pajama Game or The King and I) experience in an entire play.
Barbara Jo Bednarczuk plays Cindy Lou, the sort of girl that thrives in high school because of her attractiveness and concern with popularity. I loved how Cindy Lou seemed to never turn off the “running for prom queen act,” even when singing backup to another candidate, such as in “Lipstick on Your Collar.” Cindy Lou was a romantic rival to Betty Jean (Natalie Storrs), and their feud was the most interesting conflict of the play. Storrs was excellent at showing how hurt her character was by her friend Cindy Lou’s actions, and frequently when the two were singing backup next to each other they would exchange dirty looks or give each other a slight shove. I appreciated the depth of the changes that occurred in Storrs’s character during the ensuing 10 years. It was also nice that Storrs gave Betty Jean slight tomboyish traits, which lent some quirky humor to the otherwise very stereotypically feminine situations.
Cate Cozzens‘s portrayal of Suzy was sweet and sincere in her character’s love for Ritchie (who operates the lights during the senior prom performance). Cozzens also injected a great deal of humor into the dialogue, such as when she gossips about the misconduct of the boys’ glee club president. Unfortunately, Suzy is the character that receives the least development during the first act, but Cozzens capitalized on the material in the second act to make Suzy a very sympathetic character, especially in the first scene after intermission and in Suzy’s medley.
Finally, Victoria Cook played the shy, awkward Missy, who tried her best to keep the peace among the fighting Cindy Lou and Betty Jean. But what I loved most about Missy was her cute stiffness as she executed much of Malone’s choreography. The jerkiness of Cook’s movements in songs like “It’s in His Kiss” and the “Mr. Lee” (with its Elvis-inspired choreography) were clearly true to Missy’s personality and made the character very endearing—especially when compared to the confident, attention-seeking Cindy Lou.
It should not be surprising that Bean’s directing is superb. Creating the play (and spending over a decade with its characters) has made him intimately familiar with the show and its potential for humor. But most impressive is Bean’s ability to create visually interesting scenes with very few ingredients. The Marvelous Wonderettes has just one set and four actors (who are all on stage almost the entire time) who each have two costumes. There is, quite simply, not a lot of visual variety in the play. Yet, the performers’ blocking and the stage business (in “Thank You and Good Night” or “Allegheny Moon,” for example) made me never tire of the show or its environment.
Finally, I wish to highlight the behind-the-scenes work that also contributed to the success of this Wonderettes production. Baker’s vocal arrangements augmented the classic songs with new harmonies without distracting from their nostalgic qualities. Baker also introduced new levels of emotion into many of the old songs (such as “I Only Want to Be With You” and “Sincerely”) and encouraged all four actresses to powerfully belt others (like “You Don’t Own Me” and “That’s When the Tears Start”), which gave the cutesy score a much appreciated feeling of a modern musical. And Jo Winiarski‘s set exuded a kitschy retro vibe that deftly established the type of high school the girls attended and the small town environment that could have spawned their personalities.
The Marvelous Wonderettes is by any measure a strong musical with loveable characters, an intensely funny script, and a hummable score. But the contributions of its creators and actors strengthened this play even further. Anyone looking for a way to escape their problems for two hours won’t be disappointed by this marvelously wonderful production.