Left to right: Shae Johnson, Jillian Van Niel, Katie Worley and Audra Cramer star in Oregon Cabaret Theatre's holiday production of 'The Winter Wonderettes.' - Photo courtesy of Judith Pavlik

'Wonderettes' fills holiday with harmony

When we last saw the Marvelous Wonderettes, the girls were saving the 1958 prom in the first act and getting together for a 10-year reunion in the second. In "Winter Wonderettes," Roger Bean's sequel and Oregon Cabaret Theatre's holiday musical, which opened Friday night, directed with unabashed glee by Valerie Rachelle, it's the holiday season after the reunion. And this time it's the big Christmas party at the hardware store that's at stake.

Santa is a no-show, and the girls get the news that they're being laid off, and Harper's Hardware will be shut down. Just in time for Christmas! Holy hairdos, what will they do?

Why, lots of singing and dancing, of course. In Bean's original story, "The Marvelous Wonderettes," the music ran heavily to pre-rock doo-wop and ballads. This time out it's Christmas songs old and new that get the Wonderette treatment.

It all takes place in Harper's Hardware, Craig Hudson's festively trimmed out 1968 mom-and-pop store with a Christmas tree and a big fireplace.

Enter the Wonderettes, each with great pipes and big hair, for a glitzy take on "Mister Santa," adapted from the Chordettes' "Mister Sandman," complete with all those harmonies.

Betty Jean (Jillian Van Niel), who was jealous of Cindy Lou the last time we saw her, is still a dork. Cindy Lou (Katey Worley) is still the sexy one. Told she makes everything sound dirty, she replies, "It's a gift." Suzie (Shaeny Johnson) is the ditz. Insert any blond joke here. Missy (Audra Cramer) is the perpetual nerd wearing, I believe, the same glasses.

Each character has no depth beyond her persona, nor does she need any. The story is paper thin, and after all it's all just an excuse for a bunch of songs. And the singing is very good indeed. Each actor can carry a solo, and they harmonize like the Andrews Sisters backed up by a choir of angels.

The music is all over the place. Consider the opening medley of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Jingle Bell Rock," the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" and the classic "A Marshmallow World."

We get updates on the characters and their relationships through the byplay around the songs. Betty Jean is in corporate sales now. Suzy married the guy who ran the lights in the last show, had kids and has another in the oven. A running joke is that the lights go down if she says something her man doesn't like.

Airheads say the darnedest things. In an attempt to include her Jewish friends in the merriment, Missy offers a hearty, Happy Hanukkah, pronouncing it ha-NUKE-a. Cindy Lou says her talents would be wasted in little backwater Springfield, the play's archetypal middle American town, then confides with a duh! look, "That was meant to stay inside my head."

Songs from around the world get the treatment, including "Donde Esta Santa Claus?" "O Tannenbaum" and "Mele Kalikimaka," in which Missy picks up a ukulele, dons a tacky grass skirt and performs what may be the worst hula ever.

The girls don reindeer antlers for "Run, Rudolph, Run," bring out but do not don a sexy nightie for "This Christmas," and Suzy becomes Suzy Snowflake for the song of that name, with a costume you have to see.

Amid all this, several songs are done straight. Betty Jean's "Christmas Will be Just Another Lonely Day" has a hint of actual pathos. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's "All Those Christmas Cliches" is a bittersweet ballad.

But it's the wild and wacky parts that provide most of the punch. Missy enlists some "volunteer" audience members for "Ring Those Christmas Bells." For "Jingle Bells," three volunteers plucked from the audience joined the girls on stage as different sides of the audience chipped in with their parts, singing "ding ding ding" and "gobble gobble." You have to be there.

"Winter Wonderettes" is a razor-thin premise, but it's played with such zest that if it's a joke, we're in on it. It plays through Dec. 31 at OCT.

Share This Story