Roger Bean’s musical The Marvelous Wonderettes has had a long life in America; commissioned in 1998, its first run came a year later at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where it then returned in 2001 in a longer form. Since then it has been produced in Los Angeles (2006) and Off Broadway (2008 and 2016), but it’s taken until now for it to make its UK première – it does so Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in a limited engagement.
It’s 1958 and we’re at Springfield High School for the “super senior prom”; Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Missy & Suzy have been chosen to provide the musical entertainment (as The Marvelous Wonderettes), filling in at short notice because one of the boys in the glee club was caught smoking… The girls look to the future and hope for love, though rivalries within the group surface early on as Cindy Lou and Betty Jean begin a game of one-upmanship. But which of the four will end up being voted “Queen of your dreams” (prom queen)? And what state will their friendship be in at the 10 year reunion event?
The Marvelous Wonderettes is a jukebox musical, comprised of hits (and lesser known songs) from the times covered by the show – though at times it does veer more into concert territory than feel like a fully fledged musical. This is more evident in the first act, as the girls fly through the hits, mostly there to have a good time; the second act does make a more concerted effort at storytelling.
To be honest, this is more of an observation than a criticism, as the show is terrific fun. A concert format hasn’t done Six any harm, for example, and at least there is more of a central narrative here, as well as better developed characters. And if nothing else, it’s a great nostalgia trip: Lieber & Stoller, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Darin all feature on the song list, performed wonderfully by the cast and ‘The Marvelous Band’.
Emily Bestow’s costume designs, with typical fifties sweetheart dresses in act 1, and outfits reminiscent of sixties go-go dancers for act 2. The pastel colour scheme sees each girl with her own individual shade, matched to props such as lollipops & exercise books, and creating a cute aesthetic. Joseph Hodges’ direction makes great use of the performance space, and even involves the audience as the girls identify Mr Lee and various other personalities.
The whole show is topped off perfectly by the cast of four who make up the Wonderettes: Rosie Needham, Louise Young, Sophie Camble and Kara Taylor Alberts. They harmonise beautifully (the intricate timing of their individual vocal parts on Mr Sandman, to open the show, are particularly impressive), and between them have quite an incredible vocal range. Needham gives Cindy Lou a bitchy edge, with Young’s Betty Jean more than capable of squaring up to her, whereas Camble presents Missy as the peacemaker – and Alberts has adorably goofy moments as Suzy.
This show is pure entertainment and a great piece of escapism. It may be a bit light in the story department, but it’s a fun concoction that will get you grinning and humming away to yourself.
My verdict? A frothy concert musical that is a nostalgic bit of escapism – two hours of beautifully performed classic pop tunes.
The Marvelous Wonderettes runs at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 12 May 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
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