From its humble beginnings as a one-act at Milwaukee Rep way back in 1998 to its two-year run at the El Portal in the mid-2000s to its 2008 off-Broadway Premiere to its countless regional productions since then, Roger Bean’s The Marvelous Wonderettes has become its very own cottage industry, spawning an Original Cast Recording and assorted souvenirs, a holiday show (“Winter Wonderettes”), and now a wonderfully marvelous sequel, The Marvelous Wonderettes Caps & Gowns, getting its World Premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.

 Writer-creator-director Bean knows how not to mess with success, sticking as close as possible in Caps & Gowns to the original Marvelous Wonderettes format. Act One takes place at the Class Of ‘58’s graduation party, presumably just a few months after The Marvelous Wonderettes’ Act One prom. Like its predecessor, Caps & Gowns’ Act Two zooms us forward exactly ten years, the better to feature song hits from the ‘60s.

Suzy (Bets Malone) still chews her signature gum, that is when she’s not taking it out of her mouth and sticking it on the mike come solo time, and she seems not an iota smarter this time around. (“Don’t throw glass houses!” she exclaims at one point.) Glamour girl Cindy Lou (Lowe Taylor) is as full of herself as ever. (When asked if she couldn’t just be nicer, she retorts, “My mother taught me to be pretty, not nice.”). Prankster Betty Jean (Jenna Coker-Jones) keeps on making trouble for her arch rival Cindy Lou. Type-A Missy (Misty Cotton) is as focused on the prize, aka teacher Mr. Lee, as she was in the original show.

Bits that worked in The Marvelous Wonderettes return in the sequel, but tweaked just enough to insure that Caps & Gowns doesn’t become a carbon copy of the original. Here are a few examples:
• The first show had the girls picking whose turn it was by using a folded paper “dream catcher.” This time they pull buttons out of a baseball cap.
• In The Marvelous Wonderettes, the gals brought an audience member up on stage as “Mr. Lee.” This time round, it’s “Coach Warner,” better known as the school’s “biggest athletic supporter.”
• Richie keeps flashing lights from up in the booth to show his love for Suzy, the girls keep wearing their signature colors and doing their signature poses, and offstage characters remain conveniently monikered to fit ‘50s and ‘60s hits like “Don’t Mess With Bill,” sung to Mr. (Bill) Lee.

What’s brand new from start to finish in Caps & Gowns are its songs, nearly three dozen of them, certain to send older audience members on a trip down memory lane and their younger counterparts to youtube to hear the originals.

 1950s hits include the show-opening “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N,” a rock ‘n’ roll medley of “Rock Around The Clock” “Rockin’ Robin,” and “At The Hop,” “Dedicated To The One I Love,” and “(What A) Wonderful World,” along with lesser known gems like “Rock And Roll Waltz,” “Mr. Touchdown” (retitled “Mr. Chipmunk” in honor of their high school mascot), “My Boy, Flat Top,” and Missy’s salute to Mr. Lee, “Teacher, Teacher,” “Mr. Lee” and “Teacher’s Pet” having already been sung in The Marvelous Wonderettes.

A 1968 reunion (the reason for which won’t be revealed here, the better not to spoil the surprise) has the Wonderettes either soloing or harmonizing to “Dancin’ In The Streets,” “Hooked On A Feeling,” “Just One Look,” “Wishin’ & Hopin’,” “The Look Of Love,” “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” and “Brand New Me,” among others. (All right, Dusty Springfield didn’t actually debut the last on the list until 1970, but what’s a tiny anachronism when you’re having so much fun?)

Bean’s wispy book is full of amusing bits and terrific lines. The PTA has set up rules for the Rock-‘N’-Roll-A-Thon including No Alcohol, No Kissing, and No Petting Below The Neckline (since everyone knows that rock-n-roll leads to communism). The Class Of ‘58 theme is DREAM FLY SORE, since Suzy got the spelling wrong on SOAR. Suzy reveals that she failed “Libary” Science because, she tells us, “It was my elective, and I elected not to go.”

Act One has each graduating Wonderette bequeathing something special to a special someone and dedicating a special song to someone special in her Last Will And Testament, after which Scholastic Achievement Awards are presented. (Three guesses as to who wins all three.) Act Two has each of the four Wonderettes revealing something about herself that no one else knows. (Missy’s revelation is a doozy.)

 For The Marvelous Wonderettes Caps & Gowns’ World Premiere, Bean has assembled a couldn’t-be-better cast, beginning with Malone, who not only originated ditzy blonde Suzy way back at the beginning but has played it at the El Portal, The Laguna Playhouse, Musical Theater West, and in just about every other Southern California regional production since then, making it no wonder that hers is the definitive Miss Gum-Chewer. From her baby doll voice to her wide-eyed (and occasionally blank) stare to one priceless bit after another, Malone has made Suzy her very own, inimitable creation.

Cotton may not have been the first, or second, or even third Missy, but having seen a bunch of them (and they’ve all been splendid), this reviewer has come to the conclusion that nobody does the geeky, bespectacled over-achiever more quirkily or unforgettably than she.

Taylor, who holds the distinction of being the first actress ever to play all four Wonderettes, now gets to originate the role of Cindy Lou for the very first time (also my first time seeing her in the role), and she takes to the raven-haired stunner like a black swan to water.

Finally, there’s first-time-ever Wonderette Coker-Jones, Scenie-winning Best Featured Actress in last year’s The Wedding Singer, reinventing Betty Jean quite spectacularly indeed, bringing the same ball-of-fire energy to spunky B.J. that she did to party-girl Holly in TWS, with an added dose of cuteness thrown in for good measure.

(To give Coker-Jones’ costars their due, all three have won individual Scenies, Malone for All Shook Up, Cotton for The Fix, Sophisticated Ladies, and The Last Five Years, and Taylor for Divorce! The Musical and Little Shop Of Horrors—and that’s not counting their Ensemble awards for previous Marvelous Wonderettes or Winter Wonderettes.)

The Marvelous Wonderettes Caps & Gowns features musical director Michael Borth’s marvelous musical arrangements and orchestrations and Roger Castellano’s wonderful choreography, including plenty of ‘50s/’60s-appropriate hand moves, all of the above executed to perfection by the Wonderettes and their above-stage live band—conductor Borth and Alby Potts on keyboards, Jack Majdecki on guitar, and Eric Heinly on drums.

 Scenic designer Carnahan’s beautifully detailed gym set returns, with some Act Two additions and Bobby Pearce’s all new costumes are as gorgeous and clever as those he designed for The Marvelous Wonderettes’ Laguna Playhouse debut in 2008. D Martyn Bookwalter’s lighting design and Corinne Carrillo’s sound design are both impeccable.

Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager and Kathryn Davies assistant stage manager. DJ Gray is assistant to the choreographer.

The Marvelous Wonderettes Caps & Gowns proves to be manna from heaven for those like this reviewer who’ve seen and loved the original more times than we’d care to admit, but find ourselves in the mood for a fresh, new take on the familiar. Suzy, Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, and Missy are as loveable and delightful as ever, and for any who may somehow have missed The Marvelous Wonderettes, fear not. There’s no need to be familiar with the original to have an absolute ball at The Marvelous Wonderettes Caps & Gowns. There may not be “Dancin’ In The Streets” outside the Laguna Playhouse when the show is over, but I guarantee you, there’s be plenty of “Singin’ In The Cars” on the drive home!

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 17, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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