The Marvelous Message of the WONDERETTES

At intermission, the couple next to me slowly rose and reached for coats, hats and backpacks. Each face sported a disappointed look.

I almost cried out “No! Don’t go!”

I’d seen THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES during its first off-Broadway run in 2008. Back then, after Act One had ended, I too felt as if I’d Seen It All.

For at that point, writer-director Roger Bean’s concoction of ‘50s hits seemed simply to be a FOREVER PLAID knockoff. If one off-Broadway jukebox musical centered on four young men singing middle-of-the-road, pre-rock hits could be a blockbuster, why couldn’t there be another with four young women doing the same thing?

In fact, there had been in 1988: THE TAFFETAS, which matter-of-factly offered a female quartet with lacquered hair and dresses that reflected their name. They sang such early ‘50s standards as “Sincerely,” “Mr. Lee” and “Mr. Sandman.” The show’s only point of view was that entertainment was so innocent before rock came in. And didn’t we have fun laughing at the ladies because their act wasn’t polished enough?

THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES starts off the same way. The four young women wear formal dresses over petticoats that are as wide as an elephant’s hide. Each of them is color-coordinated: Betty Jean (Sally Schwab) is in green, which is fitting, given that she’s become a green-eyed monster – although the hot-pinked Cindy Lou (Jenna Lee Green) gives her good reason, for she’s stolen away her “friend’s” beau. Missy (Christina Bianco) is in orange right up to her glasses (the ultimate turn-off for boys in the ‘50s) and Suzy (Kathy Brier) is in a blue that’s worthy of The Virgin Mary.

Here’s a surprise: Suzy may be quite corpulent, but she’s the one who has a secure boyfriend in Richie Stevens.

It’s their 1958 senior prom at a high school in (where else?) Springfield. The girls were pressed into entertainment service after one of the boys who had been slated to perform was suspended. So we’re not watching the most suave of acts. There’s the occasional wrong note, the wide-arm gesture that almost hits another Wonderette in the face, the occasionally late entrance and the hatred bursting through the surface gaiety. In short, The Marvelous Wonderettes don’t seem at all marvelous or wonderful.

They go through the motions and a songlist that includes the same three songs listed above that The Taffeta covered. Act One offers plenty more with the same tone, with one-dimensional lyrics that are solely concerned with young and idealized love.

So we hear “Make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen” … “Kisses sweeter than apple pie” … “Love me all the time” … “My one and only love” … “I’m dreaming my life away” … “Every night I hope and pray a dream lover will come my way” … “You got me jumpin’ like a crazy clown” … “With lucky lips, I’ll always have a fella on my arm” … “I long to hold you” … “Please say that you’ll be mine” … “Hold me, never let me go.” When they’re finished singing, they might well come out with curtseys befitting fine young ladies who have been graduated from both charm and finishing school.

Through all this, we see that these women don’t even know who they are. They haven’t been helped by just being exposed to superficial “art?” The only spirit they show is so-called “school spirit.”

And if THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES had left it at that, it wouldn’t be having a revival now, for it would be as forgotten as THE TAFFETAS. But Bean does something marvelous and wonderful post-intermission.

His brainstorm was to set Act Two in 1968, when the young women are quite sadder and wiser latetwentysomethings. While they retain the same colors and coordination, their dresses shimmer of Day-Glo and are less lady-like. They all wear boots, too, save for Suzy, who has good reason not to.

The bubble-headed girls have disappeared because many of their bubbles have burst. Life took over: friends drifted apart, illicit love affairs started; Cindy Lou became Cynthia. That punch-bowl in Act One has been replaced by bottles of liquor, which at least one of the women will return to time and time again.

They do return to “Mr. Sandman,” but even here there’s a difference, for it now has been outfitted with a strikingly insistent and beat-heavy arrangement. Even so, a visit from Mr. Sandman can’t compare to the bad-boy attraction to The Leader of the Pack.

Now the songs have very different sentiments: “There’s a heat wave burnin’ in my heart” … “You don’t own me” … “Don’t tell me what to do; don’t tell me what to say” … “That’s when the tears start” … “You would cry, too, if it happened to you” … “See how much we’re growing” … Even when there’s a song that has one of the women expressing her deep devotion to her husband, it’s actually one of her denying that the marriage is in terrible trouble.

As for those who didn’t tie the know, yes, marriage is still a goal, but instead of their waiting for it to happen, as ‘50s hits dictated, now in the ‘60s they demand it.

The audience that did stay changed its responses, too. The Act One songs received polite applause and occasional chuckles, but now there were “Whoos!” and hard handclapping greeting not only music and lyrics, but the growth in the four women. Now that they’d found their real voices, the demure loveliness had been replaced with guttery growls.

What Bean has given us, then, is a commentary on how much the world changed for women in a decade and how much their collective consciousness was raised. But that’s the power of art, even on the level of popular songs.

Maybe I should have said something to the departing couple. In case you two are reading this, do consider a return — at least for the second act.