Some Christmas traditions have nothing at all to do with Christmas, and that’s just fine. In fact, it may make them all the more sweet.
Take Farmer’s Alley’s December production, for example. Every year, they transform their intimate theater into a cabaret with small tables around which audience members gather with fancy desserts and hot drinks or a cocktail for a jukebox musical full of delightful live performances of favorite old songs. It hardly matters at all when the script has little to offer beyond a vehicle for those beloved songs.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On” fits that bill, well, marvelously. The four characters who make up the fictional girl group are stereotypes and their individual and collective narratives aren’t terribly engaging or imaginative in this show that’s part of a series created by Roger Bean.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s a crowd pleaser. Not because anyone cares much about Cindy Lou, Missy, Suzy, and Betty Jean’s high school teacher’s retirement party and their 20-year high school reunion or their romantic and marital woes, but because these gals can sing, and they do an especially nice job with the catchy and nostalgic songs of the mid-to-late 1960s and 1970s practically everyone knows even if they were born long after those songs came out. From Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops and The Supremes to Kiki Dee, Captain & Tenille and Gloria Gaynor, these silly white ladies with man and career troubles can belt out a soulful song and shake their groove thangs to disco tunes and do The Hustle, all while telling the not-terribly-compelling stories of their lives.
Directed and choreographed by Sandra Bremer, the Farmer’s Alley production absolutely delivers on the promise of the script, which skews toward light-hearted entertainment without much meaning or strength of character development to anchor it with any depth. However, with excellent music direction from Jeremiah Downes, the six-piece orchestra is fantastic, and with superb sound design by Alex Tobin, makes the motown, disco, folk, rock, funk, and soul hits — even when the arrangements by Michael Borth are cheesy with overly slow ballad starts that build to a predictable crescendo — sound terrific.
And of course, they’d be little more than very good orchestrations without the fine performances by the four actresses who make these flat characters come to life through the music. Whitney Weiner is the good-natured redhead Betty Jean, the perpetually wronged, codependent big girl who soulfully belts out Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved” with passion. Missy Karle is brunette Missy, the serious and straight-laced one who keeps everyone in line, and has a gorgeous voice and sultry appeal. Mallory King is squeaky-voiced air-head Suzy, the (you guessed it) bleach blonde with most of the one-liners who is struggling to keep together a family while her husband, whom she loves “More Today Than Yesterday,” is out of work. And Julia Burrows is sharp-tongued Cindy Lou, the one with the chutzpah to run off to New York and ultimately become the “one-hit Wonderette” of the bunch.
Their voices meld beautifully together, their solos are strong, and they play well with the requisite audience participation parts of the show. This well-chosen cast joyfully does this feel-good jukebox musical justice.
Bremer’s simple but effective synchronized choreography fits the show and characters, while Savannah Draper’s set design makes use of the false proscenium center stage decorated with the iconic images of the ’60s and ’70s, from colorful cartoonish flowers and peace signs to glittery stars. Lissa Hartridge and Sarah Maurer’s sparkly, shimmery, feathered, flowing, textured costumes also evoke their respective eras, and Steve Hodges’ hair and wigs are so fabulous they practically deserve top billing.
So who cares if it’s not award-winning material? Much of the music certainly is, and even without much of a story to hang those songs on, this iteration of Marvelous Wonderettes offers exactly the kind of holiday entertainment that’s become a beloved tradition at Farmers Alley.
Farmers Alley Theatre