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A marvelous time with the ‘Wonderettes’

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A marvelous time with the ‘Wonderettes’ M Weston Photography
PTC’s latest features harmony, humor and hubris

BANGOR - Looking for a nostalgic walk through a different time via the popular songs of the 1950s and 60s? Perhaps sprinkled with a few laughs, some pathos and a whole lot of harmony?

Then look no further than “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” directed by Nathan Halverson. This latest production from Penobscot Theatre Company runs through Nov. 13 at the Bangor Opera House.

In 1958, the Marvelous Wonderettes are an all-girl singing quartet at Springfield High (Go Chipmunks!) who have been pressed into service as the entertainment for the prom after some questionable decisions by members of the glee club, who were originally going to perform.

You’ve got the snobby and superior Cindy Lou (Sara Dobrinich), the smart-mouthed Betty Jean (Melissa Hammans), the ditzy Suzy (Brianne Beck) and the goofy Missy (Christie Robinson). The ladies work their way through some of the greatest pop songs of the era - as well as through some of their own interpersonal issues.

Act Two takes us forward to 1968 and the 10-year reunion for the class of 1958. The Wonderettes are back again, this time with some songs of the 60s and an additional decade of baggage that needs to be cleared out so that the four of them can truly find their respective friendships again.

I’m only going to say this once - this is not simply a female version of “Forever Plaid.” The temptation to paint them both with the brush of pop music nostalgia is tempting and understandable, but unfair to both shows. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is its own show, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

First, the bad news - there’s not a lot of story here. While the performers gamely do their best to inform the proceedings with some sort of urgency, the truth is that for the most part, the story is lightly layered on top. It seems as though the songs were chosen first, then some conceit was found with which to tie them together. There are lots of individual bits that work nicely, but overall, there’s just not a lot there.

The good news? Everything else.

That thin veneer of story is laid atop an absolutely dynamite collection of singing, dancing and acting talent. Brianne Beck finds a way to bring sweetness and shrillness together in an adorably sincere package with her portrayal of Suzy. She’s a nasally, gum-chewing delight with a lovely smile and a lovelier voice. Hammans’s Betty Jean is full of sass, sure, but only to mask her vulnerability and heartbreak. We’ve all known the “tough on the outside, tears on the inside” type that she brings to vivid life here. And the Cindy Lou that Dobrinich has created is like some sort of proto-Mean Girl, or at least the closest you’d find in the 1950s. Her inflated sense of self-worth is on full display, all bright smiles and pageant waves.

At the center of it all is Missy. Christie Robinson’s socially awkward creation strikes just the right notes. She’s sweet, she’s genuine, she’s a little odd - and she is extremely funny. She manages to come off as spastic without ever once reeling out of control. Her sense of comedic timing is the lynchpin holding the show together.

And the music. Good lord, the music. It’s a lovely journey through the pop of the past. All told, the Wonderettes tackle over 30 different songs with power, passion and four-part harmony. And while the blending of their voices is really quite beautiful, each and every one of them finds time to shine in their solo efforts. These ladies can sing. Clearly, the musical direction of the tandem of Will Shuler and Chad Arsenault - not to mention an absolutely killer band - served these ladies well.

They can dance, too. Director Halverson doubles as the choreographer here, and anyone who has seen actors and actresses shaking their respective things on the PTC stage in recent years knows that Halverson can get it done. This show is no different, filled with choreography both well-conceived and well-executed.

Halverson’s direction is spot-on; there aren’t many out there who can bring this sort of show to life the way that he can. His eye for movement and overall directorial style provides a wonderful foundation from which these women can grow. Production values are typically excellent - scenic designer Erik Diaz and lighting designer Jonathan Spencer bring their usual high quality of work to their respective tasks. Costume designer Anna-Marlies Hunter also does wonderful work; frankly, the Wonderettes’ dresses are nothing short of spectacular.

There’s a lot to like here. Sure, the narrative is a little lacking, but who cares? These four women are singing and dancing their hearts out. Throw in some wonderful moments, both happy and sad, and you’ve got one fantastic night at the theater.

It might not be perfect, but this show is unquestionably marvelous.

‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’ runs through Nov. 13. For tickets or more information, contact the box office at 942-3333 or visit the theater’s website at penobscottheatre.org.

Last modified on Thursday, 05 January 2012 10:43

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