Wanda looks smaller than her classmates. She walks hunched over and stares at the ground. At lunch she excludes herself before she can be excluded. Her tricks for making friends don’t work. At thirteen years old, young Wanda Butternut (Sandie Rosa) has a unique problem that she won’t outgrow with age—a large purplish birthmark covering the entire right side of her face. Eric H. Weinberger’s touching and energetic tween musical, Wanda’s World is far deeper than its colorful sets and smiling pigtailed characters would have you believe. Beth Falcone composed a clever score with contagious tunes that appeal to adults and tweens alike. Songs such as the malicious lunch room taunt, “She’s So Last Week,” speaks to common tween anxieties while “No One Can Know” pokes fun at their inability to keep a secret for more than ten seconds.
Sandie Rosa is wonderful in the way she evokes Wanda; she commits to this character in mind, body and spirit. Her smile is wide and endearing, her eyes bright and hopeful, but her words tinged with caution, as if one uncool phrase could turn the world against her.
Wanda tries to carry herself with confidence but when the other girls call her Blotchy she instantly deflates. She seeks refuge at home, staring into her bedroom mirror with a long wig that covers most of her face, pretending she has her own talk show where she helps girls like her. She tells her make believe audience to blend in, cater to others, and never arrive anywhere late (people stare at you) lest you make yourself a target in this cruel and unforgiving world.
Campaigning to be the leader of this world is Ty Belvedere (James Royce Edwards). Clean cut, well dressed and reeking of wealth and privilege Ty is the favorite to win the school’s upcoming Student Council President Election. He lists his attributes in a song aptly titled, “What’s Not To Like?”
The school bully, P.J. (Leo Ash Evens) and his lackeys can find several things. Thus far P.J.’s passive aggressive attempts at Ty-hatred have included bopping him over the head with a dangling microphone while he gives his campaign speeches. But this is no longer enough. PJ is planning a cruel prank that will use Wanda as a pawn in ruining Ty’s reputation.
Unfortunately, Wanda is the perfect mark. She will do anything for a chance at acceptance, including interviewing Ty for the school station. Surprisingly, Ty shows some class by not reacting to her birthmark. Encouraged, Wanda lets her guard down and glimpses of her true personality slowly emerge; she is a bright, thoughtful and selfless girl. Such qualities are so rare in Ty’s circle of friends that he becomes intrigued.
This moment is heartbreaking because of what we know is coming. We are hoping that Wanda will build up enough self esteem to endure the impending trick P.J. is going to play on her, but when the moment comes she is at her most vulnerable. At the lowest point in her life Wanda comes to the saddest realization of all: that there is no place in the universe for a face like hers.
Fortunately, there is a voice deep inside that warns Wanda of self-fulfilling prophecies. Her climatic song, “A Face Like Mine,” is one of the saddest tunes a young girl could sing. The song takes you through Wanda’s heart; we feel her struggle to find something positive about herself to cling to when times get bad.
Wanda’s World is smart to not soften this material. This play could have felt like an after-school special, but instead we get a musical character study of an unlikely protagonist; one that you cannot root for enough. Film critic Roger Ebert once observed that audience members are more likely to cry for a character’s goodness than sadness. Young Wanda Butternut’s journey to move from the shadows of life into the spotlight certainly supports this theory.