Writer-director Roger Bean has turned harmless musical nostalgia into a career. He’s crafted jukebox tuners out of WWII ditties and radio jingles, but his crowning achievement is “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a ’50s-and-’60s revue that has already scored in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Now in Gotham, the show could easily repeat that success: It may not be great art, but it’s the kind of fun that keeps cash registers ringing.
The production practically backflips to make patrons smile. As we enter the theater, we see designer Michael Carnahan’s high school gymnasium set, bursting with decorations for Springfield High’s 1958 senior prom. Kitschy touches abound — banners for the state champion chess team, plastic punch bowls — all of them meant to produce a knowing chuckle. Auds can even join the fun by voting for prom queen.
Four of the candidates for that title are the Wonderettes themselves — clean-cut gals who have been asked to sing for their classmates. Sporting classic hairdos and crinoline dresses, they harmonize on standards like “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Lollipop,” while encouraging us to show our school spirit.
Act two transports us to 1968 for a class reunion, updating the songs to include flower-power faves like “Wedding Bell Blues.”
Bean slides a story between the songs, but narrative is never a priority. Each Wonderette is an archetype — there’s dormouse Missy (Farah Alvin), tomboy Betty Jean (Beth Malone), airhead Suzy (Bets Malone) and diva Cindy Lou (Victoria Matlock) — and each has generic boy trouble. There are fights, giggles and confessions, but they’re all just stepping stones to the next number.
The book scenes are charming and funny in the first act, as Betty Jean and Cindy Lou argue over a guy, then immediately launch into elegant choreography. But in act one, no one pretends the songs are part of the plot.
In act two, Bean tries to introduce serious themes. We learn that after high school, Cindy Lou fell in love with a rebel, and she relates his tragic death in”Leader of the Pack.” And Betty Lou? She married a guy named Johnny who cheated on her with a girl named Judy. Cue “It’s My Party.”
As the show contorts to fit the narratives of these pre-existing songs, the second act stumbles. We learn Missy’s in a bad relationship, but just moments later she reclaims her strength and belts out “You Don’t Own Me.” It’s hard to connect to a journey that short.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to cheer for the actors themselves. All four are gifted comedians, with subtle timing and absolute commitment to every corny joke.
Plus, they’re incredible singers. Bean and music director Brian William Baker arrange the songs into difficult harmonies, and the cast nails every one. In a showstopper like “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” they manage both technical precision and palpable longing.
And while each woman’s voice is impressive, Alvin’s especially has recording-star quality. When she hits the power notes in “Secret Love” or wails with desperation in “Wedding Bell Blues,” her voice slices through its gimmicky surroundings. Patrons who tire of nostalgia can just close their eyes and listen.