The marvelous foursome known as the Wonderettes are back in town just in time for the holidays, making this is the best kind of news for theatergoers in search of Christmas cheer. Like The Marvelous Wonderettes, the show that made them famous, Winter Wonderettes is two acts of comedy, harmony, and nostalgia, and a seasonal treat for old and young alike.
It’s been a while since the gals have been in town. A little over three years ago, The Marvelous Wonderettes opened in the intimate 92-seat El Portal Forum Theatre for a two-month run that that ended up extending again and again for a grand total of two SRO years, and the Wonderettes made their much-touted off-Broadway debut a year ago September. Winter Wonderettes, the quartet’s sister show which charmed El Portal audiences two Christmases ago, now returns to the much larger Laguna Playhouse in a big-stage, big-budget production that looks and sounds sensational, reuniting Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy for everyone’s holiday delectation.
Fans first met the Wonderettes at their 1958 Senior Prom (Act 1 of The Marvelous Wonderettes) and then ten years later at their high school reunion (Act 2). Winter Wonderettes takes place a few months before that reunion, Christmas 1967. The setting is Harper’s Hardware, the local emporium where Betty Jean has worked for the past dozen or so years. Store employees (that’s us, the audience) have gathered for the annual Holiday Happening, with entertainment provided by Springfield U.S.A.’s favorite daughters, the Wonderettes.
Winter Wonderettes features over two-dozen Christmas songs, from holiday faves like “A Marshmallow World,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Sleigh Ride,” all filtered through a 1960s musical lens. There are also the quartet’s affectionate squabbles, usually centered around some man or another, or on which of the four will get to sing lead.
The girls start the evening out with a clever reworking of their signature hit, “Mr. Sandman,” retitled appropriately “Mr. Santa.” As in their original incarnation, pregnant Suzy’s boyfriend-turned-hubby Richie is up in the booth sending her “I love you” light signals, and Missy’s teacher-turned-boyfriend-turned-hubby Mr. Lee aka (Marry me) Bill is in the audience, brought to life each night by an unsuspecting audience member.
Costumer Vicki R. Davis has designed spangled blue party dresses for the Wonderettes, the color chosen (according to Suzy) “in honor of our friends of the Jewish persuasion” to whom Suzy wishes a Happy HaNOOOka. (This is a holiday show which can appeal to theatergoers of all religious persuasions.)
The familiar and not so familiar holiday gems sung by the Winter Wonderettes include 1941’s “Snowfall,” with its seductive slow jazz rhythms; “The Man with the Bag,” which gets the Wonderettes to jitterbugging; “It’s Christmas Time All Over the World,” with the Wonderettes wishing us Merry Christmas in a dozen or so languages (helpfully holding up cards to let us know which language they’re singing in); and “¿Donde Está Santa Claus?,” which allows Suzy to mispronounce Spanish as charmingly as she mispronounces Chanukah, accompanied by the girls on castanets.
The “Christmas All Over the World” theme continues with Missy’s rendition of “Mele Kalikimaka” (Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas”), Betty Jean’s hilariously guttural “Oh Tannenbaum” (German for Oh Christmas Tree), and Cindy Lou’s Caribbean “(We Wanna See) Santa Do the Mambo”. And what would a Wonderettes Christmas show be without a rocking “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”?
Betty Jean sings a torchy “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day.” The girls then don red-and-green felt antlers to sing “Run Run Rudolph.” Next, Suzy, dressed as a snowflake (another marvelous Davis creation), warbles “Suzy Snowflake,” does a cartwheel, and treats the audience to a sensational tap solo, courtesy of choreographer extraordinaire Janet Miller, winner of the LADCC Award for both The Marvelous Wonderettes and Winter Wonderettes.
The four Wonderettes are the cutely-campy creation/inspiration of writer/director Roger Bean, whose 1940s-set The Andrews Brothers is about to get its third major L.A.-area CLO production and whose current smash is the L.A. “Do Wop” megahit Life Could Be A Dream. Bean has so clearly delineated Suzy, Betty Jean, Missy, and Cindy Lou that their distinctive characteristics come out no matter which talented singer/actress performs them, and the foursome assembled for the Laguna Beach production couldn’t be better.
Recreating the roles they originated at the El Portal are L.A. theater gems Bets Malone as Suzy and Julie Dixon Jackson as Betty Jean. Malone is the definitive Suzy, her signature voice always a treat for the ears, and belter Jackson is as terrific as ever as feisty Betty Jean. Misty Cotton, Winter Wonderette’s very first Missy, has the glasses-wearing Missy’s cute “geekiness” down pat, and with her quirky, jerky dance moves, makes the role entirely her own. (Both Malone and Cotton starred in The Marvelous Wonderettes off-Broadway, Malone in the original cast.) Finally, appearing as a Southern California Wonderette for the first time is the captivating Susannah Hall as Cyndy Lou. Hall, who originated the role of Cindy Lou in Winter Wonderettes very first incarnation at Milwaukee Rep, brings her own qualities to “don’t-you-dare-upstage-me” Cindy Lou, and stops the show with the absolutely gorgeous “All Those Christmas Clichés.” Understudying all four Wonderettes is the multi-talented Kara Shaw.
Bean has sprinkled magic moments throughout the show. There’s Suzy’s family tradition of “The Hiding of the Elf” and eating Spurkey for Christmas dinner (that’s Spam in the shape of a turkey). There’s also audience participation in several of the numbers, including most notably Missy’s groom “Mr. Lee” as Santa Claus, who gets to enjoy the four Wonderettes competing for his attention with the sexy “Santa Baby.”
Brian Baker and Bean’s vocal arrangements for the Wonderettes give Christmas theatergoers some of the best four part harmony they’ll hear this or any holiday season, accompanied by musical director/orchestrator Baker’s prerecorded tracks. Miller’s choreography fits each song to a T, and includes flamenco, mambo, rock and roll, twist, and of course Malone’s show-stopping tap solo. Be sure to notice how each Wonderette executes Miller’s dance steps in character. Scenic designer Davis’ set is a festival of Christmas colors, with mistletoe hanging from the rafters and a Tannenbaum which literally grows before our very eyes. Jeremy Pivnick has created a festive lighting design, with Cricket S. Myers’ sound design making sure the Wonderettes sound as good as they look.
The evening concludes with a jaunty rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” retitled (you guessed it) “Winter Wonderettes.” There are many Holiday shows playing around town from now till Christmas, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a melodic, comedic hour and a half than “Walking with the Winter Wonderettes.”
The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.
November 28, 2009
Photos: Ed Krieger