There may not be snow on the ground down Escondido way this month or next, but with Winter Wonderettes spending the holidays at the Welk Theatre, the marvelous (and wonderful) quartet’s trademark blend of comedy, harmony, nostalgia, and seasonal melodies turn the San Diego-adjacent resort’s year-round green grass and blue skies into the next best thing to a traditional White Christmas.
For those who’ve already enjoyed Roger Bean’s first-of-the-franchise The Marvelous Wonderettes, Winter Wonderettes takes place several months before Act Two of the show that introduced comedic songstresses Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy to the world a dozen or so years ago.
The year is 1967, the season is Christmas, and the setting is Harper’s Hardware, the local emporium where Betty Jean has worked for the past decade or so. Store employees (in the form of the audience) have gathered for the annual Holiday Happening, with entertainment to be provided by Springfield U.S.A.’s favorite daughters, the Marvelous Wonderettes.
Winter Wonderettes features over two-dozen Christmas songs, including such holiday faves as “A Marshmallow World” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” all of them filtered through a 1960s musical lens (with a pair of more contemporary hits thrown in, anachronism be darned).
A clever reworking of the Wonderettes’ signature hit, “Mr. Sandman,” appropriately retitled “Mr. Santa,” starts off the evening’s festivities, with pregnant Suzy’s boyfriend-turned-hubby Richie up in the booth sending her “I love you” light signals and Missy’s teacher-turned-boyfriend-turned-hubby Mr. Lee—of “(Marry me) Bill” fame—seated in the audience (and brought to life each night by an unsuspecting audience member).
Each Wonderette sports a satiny holiday frock in her signature color—orange for Missy, green for Betty Jean, pink for Cindy Lou, and blue for Suzy, a hue which the Wonderettes’ blondest member announces is “in honor of our friends of the Jewish persuasion,” to whom she wishes a Happy HaNOOka.
The familiar and not so familiar holiday gems sung by the Winter Wonderettes include 1941’s “Snowfall” and its seductive slow jazz rhythms, the jitterbuggy “The Man with the Bag,” “It’s Christmas Time All Over the World,” which has 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.
“Mele Kalikimaka” (Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas”) and the Caribbean “(We Wanna See) Santa Do the Mambo,” a rocking “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” and a torchy “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” are other Act One highlights.
Act Two opens with the gals donning color-coordinated felt antlers to sing “Run Run Rudolph,” after which a snowflake-garbed Suzy warbles “Suzy Snowflake,” does a cartwheel, and treats the audience to a sensational tap solo.
Additional Act Two holiday favorites include “This Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Jingle Bells,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” and “Santa Baby.”
The four Wonderettes are the brainchild of 40s/50s/60s buff Bean, who has sprinkled magical non-musical moments throughout the show as well. Take, for instance, Suzy’s family tradition of “The Hiding of the Elf” and of eating Spurkey for Christmas dinner (that’s Spam in the shape of a turkey).
There’s also audience participation in several of the numbers, with three lucky theatergoers getting to join the gals to provide the jingle-jangle in the show’s “Bells Medley.”
Later, Missy’s groom Mr. Lee has all four Wonderettes competing for “Santa’s” attention with the sexy “Santa Baby,” after which the evening concludes with a jaunty rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” retitled (you guessed it) “Winter Wonderettes.”
Original/perennial Wonderette Bets Malone does terrific double-duty at the Welk as director/choreographer, inspired by Bean’s and John Vaughan’s original direction and choreography.
Creator 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 quartet assembled at the Welk, each making her Wonderette debut, are not only four of Southern California’s most wonderfully marvelous triple-threats, they give this Winter Wonderettes a refreshingly youthful zing.
Best Featured Actress Scenie winner Noelle Marion (The Drowsy Chaperone) returns to the West Coast as Suzy, offering up an adorable blend of girl-next-door and goofy, i.e., a 1960s Sandra Dee with an edge.
As the girl group’s resident vamp, the effervescent Lamoureux gets her best role since her Best Lead Actress Scenie-winning turn in On A Day You Can See Forever, and she makes Cindy Lou deliciously her own.
As for Betty Jean and Missy, the Green and Orange Wonderettes are in expert hands indeed in San Diego musical theater treasures Rae K. Henderson and Sarah Errington, the former’s powerhouse redhead and the latter’s wacky bespectacled nerdette proving every bit the equal of Betty Jeans and Missys past, present, and future.
Brian Baker and Bean’s vocal arrangements give Christmas theatergoers some of the best four-part harmonies they’ll hear this or any holiday season, accompanied by music director Justin Gray and the production’s four-piece orchestra—Gray on piano, Mike Masessa on drums/percussion, Matthew Best on sax, and Vince Cooper on guitar, the first time I’ve heard Winter Wonderettes backed up live.
Malone’s choreography is an eclectic delight, featuring flamenco, mambo, rock and roll, twist, and Marion’s show-stopping tap solo.
Scenic designer Doug Davis’s hardware store set is a seasonal treat as well, with color-coordinated stockings hanging from the mantle and plenty of multi-hued lights to brighten it even more.
Jennifer Edwards’ lighting, Patrick Hoyny’s sound design, and Beverly George’s properties make sure the Wonderettes sound as festive and fabulous as they look, especially as gowned in costumes provided by Steele Spring Stage Rights and coordinated by Carlotta Malone.
Joshua Carr is producer. Davis is technical director and Ryan Hoyny sound engineer.
I’ve been revisiting Winter Wonderettes once every two or three years since the musical’s L.A. debut at the El Portal back in 2007, during which one thing has become marvelously, wonderfully clear. There is no more entertaining way to spend a melodic, comedic two acts of holiday magic and mirth than with the Winter Wonderettes.
The Welk Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.
November 22, 2014
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography