Review: Theatre Aspen musical ‘Wonderettes’ marvelous for what it is
July 1, 2010
ASPEN – According to Roger Bean’s script, the jukebox musical “The Marvelous Wonderettes” straddles the 1950s and ’60s. Act one is set in the ’50s – 1958, to be exact – as four young ladies from Springfield High School get the dream gig of having their girl-group selected to be the entertainment for their own school prom. The foursome – the Marvelous Wonderettes, of course – joke with and jab one another, and share their romantic secrets, as they belt out a soundtrack of ’50s hits.Act two moves forward a decade. The girls, now performing at their 10-year reunion, have traded in hoop skirts and bubble gum for go-go boots and shimmering dresses. The girls are either married or pregnant or contemplating their career ambitions.To be more specific, the second act takes place in 1968, the harrowing year that gave America the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As a most useful point of comparison, 1968 also marked the opening of “Hair,” the musical that embraced the 1960s in all its sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll glory.”The Marvelous Wonderettes” – which debuted Off-Broadway in 2008 and which opens, in its regional premiere, Thursday night at Theatre Aspen – shrugs off this reality. In an artistic and social sense, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” stays firmly in the ’50s, despite what the calendar says. The girls are still in that fabled bubble of the Eisenhower years; their biggest concerns are still their girlish crushes, their squabbles with their guys and with one another. The world outside Springfield High has not intruded a bit.Even the soundtrack has remained, in essence, the same. At the prom, they sang such frothy hits as “Mr. Sandman” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Ten years later, it’s not Janis Joplin or Grace Slick they’re singing, but “Heatwave” and “I Only Want to Be With You.” When the pregnant Suzy (Tricia Tanguy) sings Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” aiming it directly at her momentarily estranged husband, it hits like a wave of unexpected reality.”The Marvelous Wonderettes,” though, is as easy to enjoy for what it is – frothy, silly, escapist fun – as it is to pick apart for what it is not. The songs are mostly great – and when parade of ’50s hits begins to sound repetitious, we get some singular winners like Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” The singing is great; Christy Faber as Missy, the rah-rah girl with a crush on her teacher, Mr. Lee, has a standout voice. And the script, directed for Theatre Aspen by Cate Caplin, often does what a jukebox musical is meant to do: put the songs in a narrative context that makes you hear the familiar in a fresh way.But the primary reason that Theatre Aspen’s production ends up engaging and entertaining is Beth Malone. A part-time Snowmass Villager who helped spark last summer’s buzz-worthy Theatre Aspen production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Malone is marvelous and wonderful. As the mischief-making Betty Jean, a role she originated Off-Broadway, Malone is full of wiry, goofy, nonstop energy. At those moments when the story flags, when the jokes sag, turn your attention to Malone, whose every gesture, even simply standing still, is loaded with humor.And if you want your musical loaded with sex, drugs and ’60s rock – and ’60s politics and protests – Jayne Gottlieb Productions is staging “Hair” later this month in Basalt. It’s a kids production. Now that should be interesting.
Theatre Aspen’s production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” shows Thursday through Saturday, July 3, and Monday through Wednesday, July 5-7. It continues in Theatre Aspen’s season of rotating repertory through Aug. 21. Go to http://www.theatreaspen.org for the full season firstname.lastname@example.org