Posted by: strugglesome | June 20, 2012

Thank You For The Music: 11th Hour Theater Company’s The Marvelous Wonderettes

Photo by Kathryn Raines

Nostalgia is a much underestimated force. It is also a force with which to be reckoned. It hits us hard, digging into our memories, which have faded with time to a rosy glow, and it paints the world in a golden light. Even a world of which we have no real knowledge, like, say, the 1850’s, can be cleaned and combed and made shiny and new with the glimmer of hindsight and the distance of time. So do we now look on the 1950’s as a cheerful time of post-war opulence and happy families, Levitt Towns and petticoats, a return to the comfort and normalcy of a healthy unencumbered America. Of course, this has nothing to do with the reality of the time, but it makes us feel good when we hum jukebox favorites and giggle over adverts. And with the invention of the jukebox, and the popularization of records and record players, it is the pop music of this era that we remember more, perhaps, then any period of time before this one.  So a musical that celebrates these songs has a willing audience wherever it goes, because we know these tunes so well, they’ve invaded our consciousness regardless of our age.

And that’s the whole point of The Marvelous Wonderettes, presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company. The play itself is a sort of loose scaffold on which hangs over 20 hits of the 50’s and 60’s, with act 1 taking place at a the Springfield high school prom in the 50’s and act 2 in the 10 year reunion. Four women, Betty Jean (Kat Borelli), Cindy Lou (Lauren Catlaw), Missy (Coleen Hazlett) and Suzy (Janet Rowley), serenade their fellow students and bicker over boys in 1958, and then in 1968 they….serenade their fellow students and bicker over boys.

With coordinated outfits which manage to be bright and cute despite their extreme lack of historical accuracy, which is compensated for by how much fun the four actresses seem to have in their full skirts and later, go-go boots (costumes by Lauren Perigard), all four women get their moments in the spotlight, belting out tunes and harmonizing sweetly (with musical direction by Tabitha Allen and sound by Mark Valenzuela). Neatly directed and well paced by Megan O’Brien, the piece nevertheless does have it’s fair share of repetition and internal pacing issues, but the cast works tirelessly to keep it light and fun, fighting an uphill battle against a rather soggy script. It may be more “jab-you-in-the-ribs” funny then actually humorous, but it’s sweet, and each actress manages to put her unique spin on the roles, working to transcend the rather flat characters as they are written and give the story more depth then it may actually deserve. Borelli’s tomboyish Betty Jean or BJ begins in ’58 as rather immature but fiercely defensive of her cheating boyfriend, blaming the “other women” (her friend, Catlaw’s sultry and pouty Cindy Lou) in a slut-shamming move that feminists have been decrying for years. Borelli’s transition to wronged wife is sad and sweet and ultimately you root for her to kick the man to the curve and go off on some kind of fun adventure with Cindy Lou (whose life has been marked by its own totally contrived tragedy). Then, on the more sensible side of things, we have Hazlett’s adorably determined Suzy who spends the first act trying to keep her fighting friends together and the second trying to get her boyfriend to throw a ring on it (because that’s all women want, really, just to get married). And there is Rowley’s amusingly awkward Missy, who goes from adorkable airhead to a frantic wife with a bun in the oven and some strong words to say to her husband/the lighting board operator (an unseen presence whose love is displayed with flashing lights, so, I guess he’s one of the vampires from Twilight? The real lighting is designed by Shelly Hicklin). Together these four women, all of whom have knock-out voices, it has to be said, do-wop and trill their way through songs from Heatwave to Stupid Cupid to Respect to Son of a Preacher Man, and when they are actually singing and dancing (choreography by Samuel Reyes) this show is everything it ought to be, silly, sentimental, and fun.

Though the story aims at our heartstrings and funny bones, I must say, I found it rather troubling. Perhaps it is my modern sensibilities that rebel, or perhaps it is the fact that for the sake of even this minimal plot, female friendships are tossed aside for the attention of non-present males. These women, well, for all their beautiful singing, their lives are rather sad. They make terrible life choices, and we can see them making them at the age of 18 and then suffer through the consequences with them at the age of 28. And given that Missy is in the family way, it’s a pretty safe bet that these choices are going to radiate through the next generation. Suzy’s hot for teacher antics have her waiting around for her high school teacher to propose for the past couple of years, which is something the rest of us know as statutory rape, or, technicalities aside, just creepy. Missy’s relationship peaked in high school, which as we all know is a bad sign. BJ’s fella has been cheating on her for the last 10 years or so, and Cindy Lou lost her heart to a biker who promptly died. They have been defined by the men in their lives, rather than their relationships with each other. And there is nothing marvelous about that.

But if you ignore the darker undercurrents of the piece, it’s fun, it’s mildly funny, and it’s very nicely done. So if you want to slip on rose-colored glasses and forget all the negative aspects of the past, it’s not a bad escape for an hour or so. 11th Hour Theatre Company’s The Marvelous Wonderettes runs until the 24th of June. Tickets are available here.

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