IF YOU GO
What: Suzy, Cindy, Betty Jean and Missy get the group together to sing at the Springfield High Prom
When: 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday through March 23.
Where: 2200 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel
Cost: $42 for adults, $20 for child 16 and under
Information: BIG ARTS Marks Box Office at (239) 395-0900, Strauss Theater box office at (239) 472-6862 or bigarts.org
Something Else: Tell Diane in the box office you're calling from Naples
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
SANIBEL — By the time the final notes of Aretha Franklin girl-power anthem "Respect" die down, after Friday's opening night crowd whooped and cheered as Anne Chamberlain juggled, flipped and successfully caught an errant microphone, you're totally, completely, utterly in love with the "Marvelous Wonderettes."
Roger Bean created this long-running off-Broadway show that peeks into a 1958 prom. Gorgeous love ditties from days gone by dot the show, like "Mr. Sandman," "Lollipop," "Stupid Cupid" and "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me." If the prom ends with a stolen boyfriend and a queen's tiara out of reach, the 10-year reunion features "Son of a Preacher Man," "It's My Party" and "Heatwave."
Four lovely ladies, Em Laudeman, Amanda Downey, Anne Chamberlain and Elizabeth Urbanczyk bring the characters to life. Four girls. Four personalities, from sweetly simple Suzy (Chamberlain) to mousy Missy (Laudeman). Aggressive Betty Jean (Urbanczyk) squares off with flirty Cindy Lou (Downey) over a man. Marc Tumminelli, who directed last spring's "Over the Tavern," returns to work his magic.
Revues, by their very nature, often feel a hodgepodge collection of songs in search of a plot. Bean picked tunes that delight without over-dosing on obvious pop hits - and welded them to a reasonably interesting plot.
BIG ARTS produced the holiday sequel "Winter Wonderettes" during the 2011-12 Christmas season; Chamberlain returns from that cast. Urbanczyk, Laudeman and Downey just closed "Spamalot." Charles Fornara served as musical director.
Tumminelli runs Broadway Workshop, a New York training program for young actors; he found something sweet and charming in the show - and brings that wide-eyed schoolyard sense of innocent discovery to Sanibel. I've rarely had so much pure "fun" at any performance.
Expressive choreography from Tumminelli pays homage to the shoop-shoop, shimmy-bop and the doo-wop styles of girl groups gone by, with swiveling hips, graceful shoulders and lots of arms. At the same time, the movement has a modern, vital sensibility to it; the girls don't just stand at mics and warble.
So much of what he invents feels both wildly creative and just plain fun. Better, he injects a continuous feel of motion and activity into the show while never letting the silly byplay feel the least bit artificial. Urbanczyk and Downey throwing arms in front of each other in frustration. The tiny Chamberlain in a blonde wig and royal blue disco robe with enough feathers to stuff five pillows hopping up and down in joy at Suzy getting her man. Huge treats - in colors matching the gowns (third period Home Ec) to accompany "Lollipop," complete with glorious sound effects. There's even a disco version of "Mr. Sandman."
I love that Tumminelli pays enough attention to choreograph his characters throughout the show. Laudeman's Missy - a bookish type with wing-tip glasses - looks like she's always thinking about what to do. Wait for Laudeman to grab her moment in the spotlight in the second half; underneath that costume lies a tigress with a mighty roar. Soaring, floating, rip-the-roof-off "You Don't Own Me" brings spontaneous cheers. Urbanczyk brings her powerhouse diva voice to "Lipstick on Your Collar" and a soulful rendition of "It's My Party."
Sets, from William Davis, offer plenty of hidden delights; he tucks a disco ball among the pink and white balloons in the ceiling lights and strings crepe paper everywhere. Soft pastels in shades of cornflower, pink, purple and peach recall the happy-go-lucky 1950s, complete with cutesy script "Marvelous Dreams" prom theme. Delight in the post-intermission disco '60s set. Lighting, from David A. Sexton, cradles each solo in the most delicate of spotlights while giving plenty of flair to the bigger, bouncier numbers.
With so talented a cast - and production values so strong across the board elsewhere - I wish the show sounded better. Feedback squealed out multiple times at Friday's opening performance. Pure volume is not the issue; it was simply difficult to hear the performers' voices over the backing tracks.
Even Urbanczyk - who shook the rafters in "Spamalot" as The Lady of the Lake - sounded diminished, even as it was obvious she was belting as if her life depended on it. In other places, the four-part harmony sounds as if it were being blended with a cement mixer. Most audiences won't recognize the exact problem - but they will know something isn't quite right.
Beyond the sound, the show delights in every single way. "Wonderettes" is, dare I say, a "wonder."
Darn right, it's my party and I'll cry if I want to. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.