OCT's 'Marvelous Wonderettes' more than live up to their name

When the Crooning Crabcakes can't do their gig at the 1958 Springfield Prom because their leader got suspended for smoking ("Tobacco can kill, and make you ill!"), it was as if fate opened a door. And in walked the Marvelous Wonderettes.

That's the premise of "The Marvelous Wonderettes," now playing at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. Missy (Audra Cramer), Suzy (Shaeny Johnson), Cindy Lou (Rachael Logue) and Betty Jean (Brenna Wahl) fill the first act of Roger Bean's tribute to girl groups with juke box hits from back in the day, then return in the second act for their 10-year reunion.

That's in the foreground. The backstory is about relationships, both the girls' among themselves and the girls and their various heartthrobs. It's sweet, nostalgic and a danger-free zone.

Missy is the bespectacled nerd, Suzy is a ditz, Cindy Lou is the prima donna, and spunky Betty Jean is jealous of Cindy Lou.

The tunes in the first act are from the '50s and range from pre-rock 'n' roll pop ("Mr. Sandman," "Sugartime," "Allegheny Moon") to soft rockabilly ("All I Have to Do is Dream") to Tin Pan Alley ("Stupid Cupid") to sock hop fare ("Lipstick On Your Collar").

Some are high concept pop, in which the writer takes a single, central idea and riffs on it through variations in the verses and choruses ("Teacher's Pet").

There's little story here, just the girls doing their thing as insecure teens, then getting back together 10 years down the road and learning that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But Bean has gone all-in to make it audience-friendly, and the performers and director find every smile in the script.

Melissa Rain Anderson, who played title roles in OCT's "Cindy-Rella" and "Alice in Panto-land" back in the '90s, directed, ably. I don't know how she managed to find four such exceedingly attractive young performers who jell so well as a group and yet stand out — each one — as a soloist.

Act One finds our foursome in party dresses with crinolines and a color scheme that, collectively, will make you think of cotton candy and Kool-Aid served with Jell-O.

Suzy has a thing for Ritchie, the guy who's running the lights. We think the lovely Cindy Lou is a nice girl, Olivia de Havilland to Betty Jean's fiery Vivien Leigh. But she disabuses us of that notion as she expertly steals Betty Jean's spotlight in "Allegheny Moon." Betty Jean quickly reciprocates by trying to distract and upstage her friend every chance she gets. Suzy sings "Mr Lee" and reveals to the Prom audience (the OCT audience) that the real Mr. Lee, the teacher who enlisted the Wanderettes to do the show, is in fact her secret love.

OK, it's not "King Lear." And it wouldn't work as well as it does with lesser performers. Cramer is a New Yorker, Johnson an Ashland native, Logue from Houston and Wahl from Los Angeles. All are pros, but they're still young and sparkly, and they sing like inspired demons.

But high school chums inevitably grow up. That happens during intermission. "Heatwave" suggests the girls are no longer innocents. "Wedding Bell Blues" gives Missy a chance to speak her little mind, doggone it, and she spices up "With This Ring" with a little bump and grind. Tunes such as "It's My Party" and "Son of a Preacher Man" give these young women a chance to explore different moods, and modes in the girl-group universe.

Bean made the choice to not take the obvious road and set the second act in the Age of Aquarius. It's 1968, after all, and the Counterculture is happening, but apparently they haven't got the word in Springfield. No Hendrix, Doors or Airplane for these gals. They've stuck with Leslie Gore, Dusty Springfield and the Shangri-Las. Of course it's the music Bean focused on that determined that choice (and it's a small quibble anyway), but it's an interesting thought. I'm just sayin'.

But there can be no quibble with the big raveup of "Respect," which is simply one of the best pop songs of any era, that's the emotional acme of the show. In the end, the show is much like the songs it honors. The happy ones.

Share This Story