There’s a really good time to be had at The Marvelous Wonderettes, an infectiously charming homage to the music of the 1950s and 1960s, now making its New York debut at the Westside Theatre, buoyed by the talents of four marvelous women under the savvy direction of Roger Bean.
The show’s setting is the gymnasium at Springfield High School (brought to life with an eye for detail and some swell crepe-paper decorations by Michael Carnahan) where four female students are providing the entertainment for their senior prom after “The Crooning Crabcakes,” some members of the boys glee club, were barred from appearing because of a smoking infraction by their leader. The girls — known as “The Marvelous Wonderettes” — are naturally nervous: they’re not only singing at the last minute, they’re also all hoping to be voted prom queen.
As the girls entertain — looking lovely in their luscious taffeta and crinoline confections (courtesy of costume designer Bobby Pearce) that sensible Missy (Farah Alvin) has made for them — it’s difficult for them to always stay focused on the choreography (devised with smartness by Janet Miller). For one thing, there’s palpable tension between the statuesque and exceptionally popular Cindy Lou (Victoria Matlock) and tomboy B.J. (Beth Malone). Meanwhile, ditzy Suzy (the similarly named Bets Malone) is aware of some of the friction that exists between her singing chums, but she also manages to remain blissfully oblivious: she’s just thrilled every time her guy Richie (who’s running the lights) signals his affection for her with blackouts.
The girls’ stories — and their antagonism — provide a terrifically whimsical backdrop for the real entertainment here: the nearly three dozen tunes culled from the mid-century pop charts. While their early renditions of “Lollipop” and “Mr. Sandman” delight, as things get hairier for the quartet, they group blend together in slightly more emotional ways.
Fortunately, Wonderettes isn’t limited to the tight harmonies of girl-group singing. Each actress has more than ample opportunity to shine as a solo performer. Alvin delivers a rendition of “Secret Love” that starts off tentatively but ends powerfully and potently, and her take on “You Don’t Own Me” in the second act — which takes place at the girl’s 10th reunion — reveals the hidden strength behind her otherwise milquetoast façade. Beth Malone starts “It’s My Party” with a “Shucks, I can’t believe I’m singing this” irony, but ends the classic tearfully, an indication of this tough girl’s vulnerability.
Although she may talk with a voice that brings to mind one of the Chipmunks — and she may seem more like a junior high student as she jumps off the risers and sticks her chewing gum on the microphone before singing — Bets Malone’s Suzy is a surprisingly adult creation — which is proven beyond a doubt when she delivers “Respect” with electrifying gusto. Matlock’s take on “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Leader of the Pack” display not only her versatility as a singer, but also reveal the depth of the character’s bad-girl side.
Still, even as the girls’ stories become more serious in the second half of the show, its light-hearted spirit never fully wanes, and audiences leave beaming — and humming.