June 7, 2012

Bubble-gum ‘Wonderettes’ packs a pop

Don’t you hate reviews that begin with gushy comments like “Grab your pedal-pushers and your leather jacket and head over to Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to see ‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’ rock the house”?

Don’t you hate reviews that begin with gushy comments like “Grab your pedal-pushers and your leather jacket and head over to Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to see ‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’ rock the house”?

So do I. But I’m afraid this is going to be one of them.

The night is indeed marvelous in its featherweight, finger-popping fashion. The plot’s as thin as dental floss, the characters scarcely characters at all. But that’s not the point of Roger Bean’s giddy play: We’re simply eavesdropping on four high school kids on prom night in 1958, then at their 10th reunion in 1968. We get two hours of girl-group pop, much of it self-affirming, with some lyrics gently adapted to suit the action.

Director Billy Ensley and choreographer Tod Kubo make this narrative fizz like a well-shaken soda can. But its success hangs on whether we find the four stars appealing – not the characters, the women playing them – and I’m pretty sure you will.

As we meet them, man-trap Cindy Lou (Lauren Marlowe Segal) has stolen the guy belonging to Betty Jean (Michelle Fleshman-Cross), who’s both rougher and more fragile than her perky rival and spends the hour trying to one-up her foe.

You know Suzy (Karen Christensen) will end up marrying her guy, who’s probably her first crush. And you know that Missy (Sarah Mack), the organizer of the group, is the kind of girl who’d stay behind after everyone else to add the last bits of tissue paper to the chicken-wire frame of the homecoming float.

Then they return, a bit more glamorous but hardly changed psychologically, for a reunion that makes everything come out right.

The first act works better, because the 1950s produced dozens of girl-group ballads easily translated to this setting. (Though neither Bean nor his interpreters are careful about chronology: No one sang “Dream Lover” or danced the twist in 1958, because both came later.)

For all the peace symbols and “Make love, not war” signs hung on the set in act 2, Bean’s universe has no room for Vietnam or the Summer of Love (1967) and barely acknowledges Motown. The girls mostly belt standards from the early 1960s by Lesley Gore and the Chantels, as if time had moved glacially for them. But they’re fine songs, and the tight harmonies give lots of pleasure.

Bean cleverly sets up songs by sneaking in references to lyrics before we hear them. We learn early on that a male singing group couldn’t perform at the prom: Lead singer Billy Ray, a minister’s boy, got kicked out of school. This means nothing, until Cindy Lou starts “Son of a Preacher Man” – Dusty Springfield’s hit about a truant boyfriend named Billy Ray – in the second act.

Sometimes a singer makes us hear a song differently: Fleshman-Cross belts “Lipstick on Your Collar,” a throwaway Connie Francis tune, as if her heart were torn, and suddenly it means something. Or old lyrics inspire laughter in new circumstances: Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” becomes unusually literal, when a pregnant woman sings it in act 2 while fanning herself.

That act has been structured almost like a cabaret show, with each of the four singers spotlighted in a three-song medley. Marlowe Segal and Fleshman-Cross have the most powerful voices and use them well, but Mack’s winsomeness and Christensen’s spunk add to their numbers. (It’s especially funny to hear the latter demand “Respect” from her erring boyfriend, when we realize she can’t spell it on the first try.)

Bean has written a sequel of sorts, “Winter Wonderettes,” which Actor’s Theatre will produce at Christmas. I don’t know whether this kind of lightning can strike twice in roughly the same place. But right now, the first bolt has plenty of flash.

P.S. If you ever wanted to be in show business, select the seat in the front row that is directly to the right of the left-hand aisle. (Tickets are general admission.) You will then be playing Mr. Lee, a character in the Bobbettes’ song of that name, and you will find yourself onstage more than once. That’s all I’m going to say.

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