THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES
There are fewer decades in the last one-hundred years American history fit for the making and breaking of nostalgia than the 1950s. While the 1950s was a plentiful time, rampant with materialism and the veneer of the happy nuclear family, hindsight has told us just how much of an illusion it all was. "The Marvelous Wonderettes", a new jukebox musical, which of all musical theater styles perhaps has the most potential for nostalgia, brings us a playlist of 50s and 60s music - some familiar, some relatively obscure.
The audience was filled mostly with baby boomers and even their potential parents. This should be a clear indication of who this show will appeal to. A woman sitting across the aisle directly to my left was sighing, tapping her feet to beat, and singing under her breath, as if the remembrance of a song were enough. It's not only the reiteration of the music that should be commended however. Each production element from the gaudy costumes to the four vibrant performers is top notch. The choreography by Janet Miller is stylized and enjoyable, never overwrought or overdone. The vocal arrangement are wonderful as well, and the accompanying voices are nothing to sneer at.
Missy, Betty Jean, Suzy, and Cindy Lou, respectively played by Farah Alvin, Beth Malone, Bets Malone, and Victoria Matlock, are a synergetic force of powerful voices and beautiful. It's their performances in tandem with the music that is the main draw of this production. Each has their own distinctive personality or archive to play out. Missy is the worrying taskmaster. As played by Farah Alvin, she gets more than her fair share of songs to feature her truly God given voice. When she sings, the roof comes down. Beth Malone as the zany Betty Jean provides most of the humorous antics in the show as well as its charm and heart. She very funny and audiences should get a kick out of watching her performance. Bets Malone plays the earnest and often unwittingly endearing Bets Malone, chewing gum and singing at the same time. Last, but not least (as her character will attest to), Cindy Lou, as played by the tall and glamarous Victoria Matlock, is the all too familiar popular and pretty girl. Each performer holds their own and when they come together, it's almost always enjoyable.
The reason I say almost is that it's impossible to not think of a jukebox musical and pre-emptively criticize the book. Obviously, the music is the showcase. Musical theater can surely be strictly about the music. Though with shows like "Forever Plaid" and " Movin' Out", where the book has made considerable attempts to give their material poignancy and a true narrative, it's difficult not to be dissappointed with "The Marvelous Wonderettes" book. The problem isn't necessarily that the book is too thin or too overwrought. Rather, it falls somewhere in an imbalanced middle, so it is neither simple enough for us to ignore and strictly enjoy the music or complement the songlist by giving us a narrative and characters that we can truly care about.
The biggest example of this is the second act when the girls arrive at their 10 year reunion to deliver to us the music of the 60s and the generation X. While the music and the vocals remain vital and energetic, the book, simple as it was, suddenly turns. We're forced to sympathize for these characters in half-baked tragedies and a formulaic succession of songs - three per girl - where the music is awkwardly shoe-horned into stories that ultimately don't matter and that we don't care about. It weakens the entire show through an attempt to strengthen it, ironically enough, in a half baked attempt. It's not a big enough transgression to totally dismiss this show, but it would have been a good idea for Roger Bean to have chosen one way or the other or perhaps even to make it one act. It would have focused the show a bit more and not left us so distracted.
With that said, the performances are wonderful, and the expertly arranged music by Mr. Bean even made me, a young man born too late to remember, exactly what this nostalgia thing is all about.
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