Quite possibly the biggest L.A. theater success story of past decade has been that of The Marvelous Wonderettes, Roger Bean’s wonderfully marvelous look back at the pop music of the 1950s and ‘60s as sung by a quartet of high school girls at their 1958 prom and their 1968 class reunion. From its original incarnation (a 45-minute workshop in Milwaukee) to its two-year run at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre to its successful off-Broadway engagement, The Marvelous Wonderettes has truly conquered the American musical theater world.

Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy have now returned from the Big Apple for their biggest and best incarnation yet at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West. Performing for the first time on the humungous Carpenter Center stage with a live seven-piece orchestra, these Marvelous Wonderettes are sure to captivate audiences from teens to grandfolks, and everyone in between.

Creator-writer-director Bean’s concept is a simple one, to let the charming, quirky foursome sing a whole bunch of nostalgic hits, with some between-song patter revealing tidbits about their private lives and loves. Betty Jean (Beth Malone) is the feisty tomboy whose rivalry with class beauty Cindy Lou (Darcie Roberts) sets off sparks aplenty (and a catfight or two). Missy (Lowe Taylor) is the geeky, bespectacled gal with a crush on her “Secret Love,” Springfield High faculty member Mr. Lee (Unsuspecting Audience Member). Completing the quartet is gum-chewing, squeaky-voiced Suzy (Bets Malone), whose unseen boyfriend Richie is up in the light booth.

From the girls’ signature opening number (“Mr. Sandman”) with their signature poses (see above photos) to their signature closer (“Thank You And Goodnight”) and its encore (“Sincerely”), the songs and the laughs just keep on coming. Example: When an errand sends Betty Jean offstage, Cindy Lou takes advantage of her friend/rival’s absence to grab the mike and launch into B.J.’s song “Allegheny Moon,” causing Betty Jean to do everything possible to upstage the upstart.

We soon get to know what makes each Wonderette tick. Not surprisingly, Cindy Lou’s “talent” in the 30-second Simultaneous Talent Competition segment of the Prom Queen competition is Posing. Betty Jean is such a tomboy, you almost expect she’ll be dating Judy and not Johnny by the second act. Missy is the awkward, stage-shy one who can’t stop shaking throughout her first solo. Suzy is the ever-excited giggler, group peacekeeper, and inveterate gum chewer. (Never mind that she nearly chokes on it. When a helpful pat on the back sends her gum on a trajectory straight to the gym floor, she blithely picks it up and reinserts it into her ever ready mouth.)

If Act One’s ‘50s hits sound sweet but a tad dated, Act Two’s ‘60s smashes hold up remarkably well. “Heat Wave,” “It’s in His Kiss,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” “It’s My Party,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Rescue Me,” and “Respect.” There’s not a dud among them!

Bean’s book cleverly borrows several of its characters’ names from the show’s ‘50s and ‘60s song hits. Town bad boy Billy Ray Patton (suspended from school for smoking!) is the “Billy Ray was a preacher’s son” of “Son Of A Preacher Man.” Betty Jean’s boyfriend Johnny is the Johnny of “It’s My Party” (“Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone / Judy left the same time / Why was he holding her hand / When he’s supposed to be mine?”) and the evening’s absent prom queen nominee just happens to be named Judy Carter. Missy’s faculty crush is named “Mr. Lee,” the title of one of The Marvelous Wonderettes’ catchiest songs, with first name Bill (so that Missy can later sing “Marry me, Bill” in “Wedding Day Blues.”)

As writer/director, Bean has also added a bunch of fresh new bits not in the original El Portal production, most notably that 30-second talent competition which has (in addition to Cindy Lou’s posing) Missy singing her best note over and over again, Suzy twirling a Lemon Twist around her ankle while blowing giant gum bubbles, and Betty Jean hurrying to light up her fire baton before the buzzer sounds—all at the same time!

Then there’s Janet Miller’s justly award-winning choreography, which features different steps and arm movements for each song (as was de rigueur for any ‘50/’60s girl group).

The MTW cast is a veritable “Best Of The Wonderettes.” After 10+ years of originating Suzy in every single Wonderettes production so far, there’s no Suzy quite like (Bets) Malone, with her trademark Betty Boop-esque song stylings and adorableness to the nth degree. Though (Beth) Malone was off-Broadway’s original Betty Jean, most in the audience will be getting their first look at the Broadway vet’s very original take on the role, ever ready to hitch up her crinolines and punch out whoever gets in her way—that is when she’s not belting out a song with those powerful Beth Malone pipes. Darcie Roberts originated Cindy Lou at the Laguna Playhouse, and MTW subscribers who’ve seen her in The Andrews Brothers and Silk Stockings will once again ooh and aah at the way this chameleon-like performer morphs into a leggy seductress with ‘50s curves and quite a way with a song. Finally, there is terrific triple-threat Taylor (off-Broadway’s last Suzy) who, having played all four Wonderettes as the show’s very first “Wonderstudy,” now expands her repertoire as the big-voiced, big-haired nerdette with a “Secret Love.”

MTW’s is the Wonderettes’ first Southern California production with a live band, and it couldn’t be better under the baton of Michael Borth. Bobby Pearce’s costume designs debuted at the Laguna Playhouse before traveling to New York, and they are a colorful bouquet of ‘50s/’60s inspired prom wear. Michael Carnahan’s beautifully detailed gym set is an enlarged version of the one he designed for Laguna and off-Broadway. Lighting designer extraordinaire Jeremy Pivnick has been with the Wonderettes ever since the El Portal, and his multihued design varies vividly from song to song. Julie Ferrin creates yet another first-rate sound design for her umpteenth MTW production. The ever reliable Vernon Willet is production stage manager, assisted by Mary Ritenhour.

At first glance, The Marvelous Wonderettes might seem a small show for the very big Carpenter Center, but the great big onstage talents prove that there is strength even without numbers. Audiences from teens to their parents to their parents’ parents are sure to have a rocking, rollicking, romantic good time with the wonderfully marvelous Marvelous Wonderettes.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
April 22, 2010
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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