'Marvelous Wonderettes' relive high-school dreams

NEW YORK (AP) - September 14, 2008 Their first number is a perky, slightly tentative a capella version of "Mr. Sandman." The girls soon find their confidence, however, as one by one they take the lead in singing popular songs from the '50s.

Soon they're belting out musical numbers like trained professionals - golly, are we still in the Springfield High School gym here? Yes and no, because these Springfield "Chipmunk" Song Leaders are actually singing their hearts out in the charming, fast-paced off-Broadway musical, "The Marvelous Wonderettes," on view at the Westside Theatre.

You won't find a more delightful girl-group than Suzy, Missy, Cindy Lou and Betty Jean, who harmonize beautifully even as they compete good-naturedly to be voted prom queen, the "Marvelous Queen of Your Dreams." A bit of audience involvement is encouraged, so the girls openly wink and flirt with theatergoers in their quest for the queen's tiara.

Swathed in candy-colored chiffon, appliques and sparkling net draped over yards of petticoats, each girl represents an Eisenhower era stereotype. The very talented performers bring some complex, unique qualities to their characters. All of them deliver gleeful performances, complete with beautiful singing and well-honed comic timing.

Earnest Missy (Farah Alvin) acts as impresario, keeping the gals on track. Missy nervously adjusts her cats-eye glasses as she tries to prevent her friends' mostly good-natured antics and romantic rivalries from derailing the show.

Bets Malone, as the adorably spunky Suzy, has a syrupy-sweet singing voice and infectious staccato laugh that endears her daffy, gum-snapping character to the audience.

Tomboyish Betty Jean is played with a cocky, scene-stealing swagger by Beth Malone.

Unlike the other girls, Cindy Lou (exceptionally well-vamped by Victoria Matlock) acts confident and outgoing in her sexuality, yet is insecure enough to try and steal other girls' boyfriends, just like she tries to steal the show - and the prom queen title - from her friends.

The Wonderettes tell the stories of their teenage crushes and romances to lead into and personalize some of the songs. The results are campy in a clever way, often poignant, and highly entertaining.

Created and directed by Roger Bean, the show is an homage to a more innocent time, while subtly conveying the restrictions on women's roles. The fun never stops with Brian Baker's musical arrangements and Janet Miller's hilariously inventive group choreography. Every hand gesture and shoulder bounce is perfectly placed.

Bobby Pearce's bright costumes perfectly capture the times, both for the relatively chaste prom in Act 1, and again when the girls reunite in fishnet tights, white go-go boots and metallic-colored sheaths for their ten-year reunion, in the second act. Older and mostly wiser, the Wonderettes of Act 2 share some tough life lessons they've learned, using the more spirited music of the '60s.

The prom and reunion take place in Michael Carnahan's nicely minimalist gymnasium, draped in typical school-dance crepe paper and laden with school spirit signs, a spirit personified by these irrepressible, bubbly Wonderettes.

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