WINTER PARK — It’s 1958 at Springfield High, and the four young ladies who love to sing have been granted an amazing opportunity: the chance to perform as a group at their high school prom.
While on stage crooning ’50’s ditties like “Lollipop,” “Dream Lover” and “Stupid Cupid,” our gal singers — Missy, Cindy Lou, Suzy and Betty Jean — revel in the opportunity to demonstrate that girl bands have just as much to offer as their boy counterparts.
In fact, if anyone is wondering if the 1950s happened to be a much different, and far more innocent, era, consider that the boy band originally scheduled to perform that night got cancelled when their leader singer Billy got caught — ready for this? — smoking behind the school. The girls know enough to avoid such a dirty habit.
They call themselves the Marvelous Wonderettes, they have exceptionally strong singing voices — and, as it turns out, pretty distinctive personalities. Missy is the leader of the group, the one who organizes everything and made their outfits, but she also has a crush on her teacher Mr. Lee and is painfully shy in his presence.
Cindy Lou is the ditzy, spacey girl, Betty Jean is feisty and spunky with a jealous streak, and Suzy is the flirtatious one. Like all teenagers, they have a tendency to elevate relatively minor incidents into gargantuan life-or-death dramas.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes,” the play written by Roger Bean, opened Off-Broadway on Sept. 14, 2008, was an instant hit, and ran for more than five years. Now finding a new home at The Winter Park Playhouse through Oct. 10, it’s easy to see why Bean’s fairly simple concept proved so enduring. Mixing nostalgia with humor and a strong fondness for the joy of being a teen — before life demands that we accept responsibility and become, you know, one of those adult types — “The Marvelous Wonderettes” manages to have charm to spare.
It’s not entirely clear that’s going to be the case in the beginning, when the four girls come out on stage to begin their show for their fellow students. As they sing those familiar hits from the 1950s, it feels like “Wonderettes” is going to become a tribute show to those who either remember the era, or have rediscovered the music from it — pleasant, but insubstantial.
As it turns out, Bean had far more in mind, and constructs those songs very much around the personalities of four likable, quirky, and yes, innocent young singers. We get to know more about Missy’s secret crush on Mr. Lee, about Cindy Lou’s love for a boy working the lights at the prom show, and the boy that both Suzy and Betty Jean have their eye on. If none of this is overly dramatic, that’s not the point. So many of the songs they perform — “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “Secret Love,” “Man of my Dreams” — revolve around that one subject that the rock and pop world would explore and immortalize: teenage love. “The Marvelous WOnderettes” is a sometimes hilarious look back at the days when developing a crush was the absolute most important thing happening in a teen’s life.
The play gets even better in the second act, which jumps ahead by a decade. We’re back at Springfield High, and now it’s 1968 and we’re at the class reunion for those 1958 graduates. The Wonderettes get back together to perform again, and while their lives have changed — they graduated years ago and have sailed into adulthood — they still have pretty much the same chipper personalities.
And while 1968 was a controversial year in U.S. history, with assassinations, the Vietnam war, and race riots — in small-town Springfield, the girls are still grappling with that age old dilemma of finding true love. This time, though, the tone of the songs — “You Don’t Own Me,” “It’s My Party,” “Rescue Me” and “Respect,” among them — has changed. The girls are finding their own voices, and are showing a clear sense of independence.
Bean clearly set out to have plenty of fun with this one, and so does the Playhouse, which captures that sense of innocence mixed with just the right pace to keep the laughs rolling. The casting helps enormously, with Caitlin Doak (Cindy Lou), Lindsay Nantz (Suzy) and Kate Zaloumes (Betty Jean) all excelling at both vocal talent and comedic timing.
Sandia Ahlers really stands out, though, as Missy, the smart and focused girl who tries to keep the band in performance mode when their emotions sometimes get the better of them — and who finds her own secret love turns her into a shy, jittery teen with will blush and run. She’s a scream to watch.
Whether you go to relive or rediscover those hits from yesteryear, or to enjoy the way four excellent performers milk the humor in Bean’s script, “Marvelous Wonderettes” is a real delight all the way.
The play is being performed at the musical theater at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park. For tickets or reservations, call 407-645-0145.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..