For all its promotional material about cotton candy–colored dresses, the Gem Theatre's production of The Marvelous Wonderettes is actually quite analogous to a confection. The dancing and singing are a treat to see and hear, thanks to a talented cast and the best set I've ever seen at the Gem. The music is catchy and familiar, and jokes and sight gags keep the audience sated. However, underneath this sweet soundtrack lurk empty calories in the form of a wafer-thin premise.
Obviously the plot is not the selling point, but what keeps the show from being billed as a concert is the story and characters, so these elements invite dissection. The story — what little exists — is lame. Creator Roger Bean introduces us to the dimwitted one (why, yes, she is a blonde), the vampy attention hog, the bossy mousy one (glasses? check), and...the Ethel. Each girl is distinguished by her dress color better than she is by her name: just call 'em Blue, Pink, Orange, and Green. The four are high school frenemies and song leaders, class of '58. Their lives revolve around boys, and when those boys hurt their feelings, they sing away their troubles as the prom-night entertainment while dressed in matching pastel crinoline. At the school's ten-year reunion, the same boys have hurt their feelings again, so the estranged group sings some more, this time wearing marabou-trimmed, neon-bright costumes ostensibly stolen from a drag production of Mamma Mia! In a frankly weird choice, the lighter '50s songs of the first act are chosen to reflect the girls' state of mind, a sort of jukebox-confessional style, whereas in the second act, their very lives have been railroaded to fit the popular songs of the '60s; they've lived each number they sing, word for word. Early mentions of a "Judy" and a "Johnny" lead to the literal scenario described in "It's My Party," a stab at cleverness that makes the women's second-act woes seem like creepily foretold conclusions.
My issues with the script aside, this agreeable production is as strong as it can possibly be, with fine direction by Hinton Battle and four well-rounded singers and actors giving it their all. Goofball B.J. may be chastised for being unladylike and giggling at the word "butt," yet Holly Davis's portrayal remains unsinkable and infectious; even while wickedly sabotaging the others, she clearly can't stop having fun. As Missy, who at least believes she's in charge of the proceedings, Laura Hall shows off a gorgeous singing voice just moments before revealing her character's secret primal intensity, which had the audience rolling. Gretchen Bieber and Marley DelDuchetto do well enough with their stock characters, especially in the second act, when all four women mellow away from simplistic teenage enthusiasm.
As mentioned above, Michael Carnahan's set replicates a high school gymnasium in astounding detail, and also manages to make the small Gem stage appear cavernous. Musical direction by Dan Greig features equal strength in solo songs and harmonies. Eric W. Maher's lighting changes as frequently as the Wonderettes' microphone stand configurations, shuttling focus all over the stage. Costumes by Ellis Tillman and wigs by Soloman DeWayne demonstrate just how much can change in ten years, contributing to the extremely different tones of the first and second acts.
The Marvelous Wonderettes is a hearty dose of nostalgic, shimmering, just plain fun set to music almost everyone has heard. It's not great theater, nor is it the cleverest concept I've ever seen, but sometimes nothing but candy will do; in that respect, this production hits the spot. The show moves crisply at less than two hours, luckily remembering to pair short with its ample syrupy sweetness, and relatively few musical lovers will leave with a tummy ache.