The Chicago-area musical theater scene is currently caught up in the throes of major pop culture nostalgia. And with the reappearance of the 2008 off-Broadway jukebox musical "The Marvelous Wonderettes" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, the nostalgia continues to be spooned out in heaping doses.
Most recently staged at Skokie's Northlight Theatre in 2009, "The Marvelous Wonderettes" joins a crowded field of other current musicals that celebrate the 1950s ("Grease" at the Paramount Theatre and "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" at the Broadway Playhouse), the 1960s ("Dreamgirls" at the Marriott Theatre) and the disco era ("Xanadu" at Drury Lane Theatre). But when compared to these other properties, the inferiority of the writing in "The Marvelous Wonderettes" soon becomes apparent.
"The Marvelous Wonderettes" - two stars"The Marvelous Wonderettes"
Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com.
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 4
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission
Parking: Free adjacent garage and street parking
Rating: For general audiences; minor profanity
In "Wonderettes," playwright Roger Bean not-so-subtly shoehorns 1950s and '60s pop hits into a paper-thin plot with simply defined characters who come to be differentiated mostly based upon the color of their dresses by associate costume designer Lisa Hale. (The Wonderettes are close cousins, if not as blandly generic, as the similar girl-group jukebox revue "The Taffetas.")
The Wonderettes themselves are a quartet of baby doll-voiced Springfield High School seniors performing first at their 1958 prom, then at their 10-year reunion in the second act. Missy (Kristine Burdi) is the industrious one dressed in orange who has a secret love, Cindy Lou (Katie Siri) is the vain, pretty one in pink, Betty Jean (Amy Malouf) is the trickster in green and Suzy (Ashley Wolfe) is the clumsily blunt one in blue with slightly gross manners (watch out where she leaves her chewing gum).
Together they sing and harmonize one song hit after another, ranging from "Mr. Sandman" to "Mr. Lee." Under the fine direction of music director Micky York and bandleader Mike Evans, these performers are all vocally top notch, particularly Burdi's Missy and Siri's Cindy Lou as they riff on extended pop melismas in their solo numbers.
But after a while the squeakiness and sameness of the sound becomes tedious, as can the petty character jealousies that get too easily resolved after initially flaring up. The show also has some glaring inconsistencies once you stop to think about it.
Many of the songs, particularly second-half ones like "Leader of the Pack" or "Son of a Preacher Man," grow out of character revelations revealed on the spot. So how would the onstage band know in advance to be fully rehearsed and ready for these songs to provide backup at a moment's notice?
And though director Lauren Rawitz and choreographer do provide plenty of fun physical schtick for the performers to execute (like Wolfe's Suzy clumsily climbing over rows of seats and the many annoyances Malouf's Betty Jean deploys on Cindy Lou), the inconsistency of the microphone stand choreography is another nagging staging problem (sometimes the microphones are sung into, other times they are not).
Yet for audiences who want nothing more than to be pleasantly lulled by song hits of yesteryear amid a handsomely designed production (particularly the high school gymnasium set designed by Scott Sumerak and the sometimes flashy work of lighting designer Mike Wagner), "The Marvelous Wonderettes" will be another yet another locally produced Roger Bean jukebox musical to be checked off the list. And Bean has certainly been well-represented with stagings of "The Andrews Brothers" at Metropolis last season, "Route 66" produced by the Paramount in Aurora this past summer and the holiday sequel "Winter Wonderettes," slated to be staged at Fox Valley Repertory in St. Charles starting in November.