Arizona Onstage Productions
'Marvelous Wonderettes' is youthful energy
Show is an interpretation of bygone days
It’s important to understand that “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is not a re-creation of '50s and '60s girl group pop, but an interpretation. This Arizona Onstage production has its own internal logic, more rooted in youthful energy and theatrical performance than in old-timey authenticity.
Director Samantha Cormier, in a previous review, said her own perceptions have been shaped at a distance from what she perceives as her grandparents’ era.
Los Angeles author Roger Bean is the creator of what he calls “jukebox musicals.” They include “The Andrew Brothers,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?,” “Life Could Be A Dream,” etc. In them, Bean threads popular songs together with a slight storyline to evoke a specific period.
The story here is set first at the 1958 Springfield High School Prom, then at the 1968 reunion. Four girls from the class are the entertainment as the Marvelous Wonderettes. Their style, honed back in the day in basements and on stoops, concentrates on either close four-part harmonies or three-part background vocals while they take turns as the lead singer.
At the school’s ’68 event, there’s a slightly more assertive tone, which seemed undercut by jarring juxtapositions: the Brill Building simplicity of “It’s In His Kiss” against Laura Nyro’s sophisticated insight in “Wedding Bell Blues,” the laconic “Son of a Preacher Man” with grrl roots-rocker “The Leader of the Pack,” and the supplication of “Rescue Me” segueing uneasily into a demand for “RESPECT.”
Although ostensibly focusing on a girl group, the song selection includes music originally popularized by solo singers like Patti Page, Leslie Gore and Dusty Springfield, as well as Bobby Darin and the Everly Brothers. The overall effect is more focused on mood than historical fidelity.
Unfortunately, the program gives no credit or information regarding original versions of its songs, further untethering its context. The use of preprogrammed instrumentals for the live vocals is an understandable and acceptable compromise given budget and space limitations.
"We ran out of time and room in the program to credit everyone," Cormier said.
Musically, the quartet, portrayed by Shanna Brock, Liz Cracchiolo, Janet Roby and Jacinda Rose Swinehart, played well together, though it sometimes took them a moment to sweeten out the intricate harmonies. There were also occasional problems mixing their four individual live performances in real time through the PA system with the recorded background music.
That’s at best a pretty unforgiving task, especially in a small hall with wooden floors like the Cabaret Theatre. That, however, should smooth out over subsequent performances. Cracchiolo and Swinehart were particularly strong in ensemble and as soloists – both are veterans of earlier Onstage Arizona musicals, including Swinehart’s dynamic work co-starring in last year’s “Sweeney Todd.”
On the theatrical side, the four characters have what would eventually be termed “issues,” mostly around boyfriend boundaries. The four Wonderettes squabbled, fussed, supported and forgave just like family. Individually, Cormier’s blocking studiously recreates the awkwardness of the first time on stage. There they forget that their interpersonal dramas are playing out embarrassingly before others. But BFF’s before we knew that’s what to call them, they all hang in there for each other, experiencing personal growth and maybe even happiness along the way.
"Remember, girls, it's your first time on the stage, " Cormier directed her actors.
However, characters, like story, are subordinate to the music here. The opportunity to string together these songs is its own purpose, so don’t look too deeply for character arcs or meaning. Enjoy the enthusiastic performances, marvel at the social mores implied by the lyrics, and revel in the harmonies of a different era.