Down Memory Lane

Arizona Onstage's shallow 'Wonderettes' is studded with fun hits from the '50s and '60s

When Kevin Johnson, artistic director of Arizona Onstage Productions, introduced The Marvelous Wonderettes on opening night, he noted that the musical is being performed by theater troupes all over the country, after a long run off-Broadway. He said The Marvelous Wonderettes has clearly "struck a chord" with audiences, who sometimes just want to hear the music of their youth.

A cry of "Yes!" was heard from the members of the packed crowd (many from the 60-plus demographic). I have never before seen so many people crammed into the small space of the Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art. Johnson is correct in his assessment of what a certain kind of theatergoing audience wants in a musical.

Actually, The Marvelous Wonderettes is more revue than musical. It's described as "created by" Roger Bean, rather than "written by." There are no original songs; instead, the show consists of famous pop tunes from the '50s and '60s strung together by a tenuous plot.

The title refers to an all-girl group of singers. In the first act, they are performing at their 1958 senior prom. In the second act, they sing at their 10-year high school reunion.

There's Missy (Jacinda Rose Swinehart), who wears cat-eye glasses and heads the prom-decoration committee. There's Cindy Lou (Shanna Brock), whose heart is set on becoming prom queen; Cindy Lou is competitive with her nominal best friend, Betty Jean (Elizabeth Cracchiolo). Finally, there's sweet but dim Suzy (Janet Roby).

Swinehart wowed me with her acting earlier this year in Studio Connections' Fat Pig, and she wowed me again here with her voice, which is powerful and charming. Her Missy has a crush on her teacher. His name is Mr. Bill Lee, giving Missy an excuse to sing "Mr. Lee" and "Wedding Bell Blues" ("Till you marry me, Bill ..."), along with "Teacher's Pet" and "Secret Love."

Similarly, lovelorn Betty Jean has a troubled relationship with a boy named Johnny. That's so she can sing "It's My Party" ("Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone ..."), "That's When the Tears Start," "I Only Want to Be With You" and "Lipstick on Your Collar."

That's the basic idea: In each act, the girls sing songs that are part performance and part reflection of what they're feeling. Their characters have been built around the songs, rather than the other way around; Missy, Betty Jean, Cindy Lou and Suzy are basically just an excuse for catchy pop numbers and period costumes.

Still, the performers do their best to add individual touches to their characters. Roby as kind, ditsy Suzy deserves a special nod. In the first act, Roby manages to convey Suzy's sweetness of spirit through her enthusiastic waves to her offstage boyfriend. In the second, Roby gets to make full use of her voice in her bid for respect from the same boy (now her husband) when she sings "Maybe I Know," "Rescue Me" and "Respect."

Brock, as queen-bee Cindy Lou, is suitably gorgeous, and she's a charismatic performer. Her sweet, reedy voice works well on slow numbers like "Maybe," but it's just not up to bigger, bluesier songs like "Son of a Preacher Man" or even "Leader of the Pack."

In the program, director Samantha Cormier notes that she wanted to capture a "nostalgic charm" that would make you leave "with a smile on your face and a song in your heart." This show is not trying to plumb the depths of the human condition: It lives or dies on razzle-dazzle.

For the most part, Cormier and Arizona Onstage do an excellent job of presenting a cheerful, candy-colored package for their audience. Cormier and Mike Boyd designed and constructed the set, a simple backdrop evoking a high school gym. The sound design (recorded rather than live) works well, with only a tiny bit of feedback at one point in the show. The lighting, however, is a bit odd; it's dim throughout. At a few points, a character who should be the focus is plunged into darkness.

In his bio, artistic director Johnson says that his "Mammie B" was a costume designer for the Ice Capades, and one can't help but feel that she would be proud of his costume design here. In the first act, the girls wear delicious, puffy crinoline-and-lace confections; in the second, they're in shiny, knee-length, mod-influenced dresses with capes. The shift in costumes effectively signals the shift from the '50s to the '60s.

The costumes, in fact, are what stuck with me most vividly after the show, which is perhaps appropriate. The show is all on the surface: What you see is what you get. There's nothing deep or complex about The Marvelous Wonderettes, but then again, there isn't really supposed to be.

Still, if you're a grouch like me, you long for more depth and complexity, anyway. But I'm clearly not the target audience.

As I said, the theater was packed on opening night, and the audience members gave the show a standing ovation. I stood up, too. Never let it be said that I condemn someone else's wholesome good fun.

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