A Stroll Down Memory Lane

The Marvelous Wonderettes, a 2008 jukebox musical that is being revived at Theater Row, shows how far women have come since the days of the Drifters, with naive bobby-socksers at the high school gym lost in crinolines and pink. Roger Bean’s playful show features a nostalgic storyline that spans the decade 1958-68 as it focuses on the lives of four women in high school and then, in the second act, at their 10-year reunion.

Christina Bianco plays the bossy, fiery Missy, who is in love with their teacher, Mr. Lee. Kathy Brier is Suzy, happily in love. Jenna Leigh Green is the vamp, Cindy Lou, and Sally Schwab portrays the ever-duped-in-love Betty Jean. Each character represents a different aspect of women’s issues, whether it’s marriage, work, or loyalty, and the story follows the evolution of women’s rights. As the girls weave their narrative of life since the high school prom around the lyrics of the old favorites straight from the American Bandstand Top 10 charts, the audience gets a sparkling overview of women’s struggles to make their dreams come true.

Under the direction of Tom and Michael D’Angora, the top-notch cast share a glimpse at that journey as they deliver the lyrics of the oldies but goodies, such as “Leader of the Pack” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” The production is full of color and glitz; it feels like memory—the way the mind’s eye makes it pretty and delusional about how simpler the times were then. It is not a thought-provoking, deep show, even though Bean hits on some serious themes, such as women coming together in sisterhood rather than being pulled apart by the social forces that have often oppressed them, though the themes are not fully realized yet.

The women sing with superb harmony (the musical director is William Wade) and dance, perfectly synchronized, to the choreography of Alex Ringler. The well-rehearsed moves work beautifully as the women swirl in their jelly-bean-colored prom dresses, created by Bobby Pearce. All the chiffon and crinoline in rhythm with the music makes an audience sway and bask in the joy of more innocent times. 

William Davis has designed a crisp, clean set of right angles and Day-Glo colors—exactly what is remembered of those halcyon days. With family-friendly slapstick, the direction is perhaps a bit too over-the-top in its pantomimed physicality, but at the same time it is faithful to the period variety shows like those of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.

The high school competition between Cindy Lou and Betty Jean over the unseen, two-timing Johnny has the potential to make some important points about women and how they are pitted against one another because of society’s codes, but as yet isn’t strong enough. This becomes more obvious in the second act, when the girls come back to perform at the 10-year high school reunion. A very pregnant Cindy Lou, crying her woes over a faithless husband, embodies the issue of staying committed to a marriage and raising a family in an unhappy union.

Meanwhile, Missy, who is still trying to catch Mr. Lee and yet hold onto her own identity, is a clear reflection of the issues of independence women faced during this period. As the girls rally around her and berate the unawares Mr. Lee (played by an audience member brought on stage), reminding him that “He doesn’t own her,” the ladies improvise terrifically.

This is a classy production with a group of very talented young women. Although it’s a fun blast from the past, we really have come a long way, baby.

The Marvelous Wonderettes is playing at the Kirk Theatre (410 W 42nd St.) in an open-ended run. Evening performances are at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, visit http://www.theatrerow.org/kirknowplaying or call (212) 239-6200.

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