"The Marvelous Wonderettes" is now playing at Theatre Winter Haven. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

WINTER HAVEN – In theory, nostalgia is supposed to have its maximum effect among those who experienced it way back when – in this case, the 1950s – although that’s not exclusively true. People born decades after Dwight Eisenhower was president and Pat Boone was lighting up the pop charts can still rediscover things about that era that fascinate them and make them feel like they were born at the wrong time.
One of the most sublime elements of 1950s nostalgia, I propose, is the music – upbeat, fun, romantic, and able to capture a sense of innocence and sweetness that probably hasn’t been around for quite a while in the more jaded adult-oriented era we’re in now.
In fact, so many of the classic songs of the 1950s brilliantly capture what it’s like to be … well, to quote the title of one of the Everly Brothers’ genuine classics, a “Teenager In Love,” that the songs seem positively tailor-made for an event like a high school prom.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes,” the play now being produced at Theatre Winter Haven, nicely recreates the nostalgia of the prom and how that music helped set the mood for the event while also bringing forth the feelings, sensitivities and emotions of the kids who are on the verge of graduation and heading off to college or the working world, not to mention adulthood …. But were still grappling with the most difficult emotions of all, those initial feelings of love and longing.
“Marvelous Wonderettes” is a musical comedy by Roger Bean, that played off-Broadway and used pop songs from the 1950s and 1960s to pay homage to the high school Songleader squads of that era.
Set in 1958 at Springfield High, the Songleaders – Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy and Suzy – get asked to perform at their senior prom as a last minute replacement. The girls give it their all, determined to entertain their classmates in four-part harmony.
Along the way, there are some cute gags – the audience was practically swooning as the singers brought a rather befuddled-looking elderly gentleman from his seat in the crowd onto the stage with them, so they could serenade him – and yet another reminder that the 1950s was an era of amazingly gifted songwriters, including Neil Sedaka (“Stupid Cupid”), Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster (“Secret Love”), Pat Ballard (“Mr. Sandman”), Jerry Leiber and Mike Stroller (“Lucky Lips”), Jeffy Barry (“Leader of the Pack”) and Bobby Darin (“Dream Lover”). That’s an amazing catalog to build a theatrical production around, and as other Broadway musicals like “Grease” have discovered, there’s a lot more to nostalgia that can be mined from these songs.
For one thing, no matter how many of these tunes are wrapped up in a catchy melody or bouncy beat, the singers and songwriters truly understood the emotional angst that their largely teen-age audience was going through, and these songs are like a journey through the emotional minefield known as first love. Yes, the songwriters seem to be saying, if you feel like you’ve fallen in love for the very first time, and it’s all you can think about, and you simply can’t get your mind off that special girl or boy … you’re not alone, you’re not unique, you’re not the only one. You, too, the songwriters suggest, will survive the terror of calling that girl you love for the first time and finding the courage to ask her to the prom. You’ll survive when the boy calls, after all those lonely, agonizing nights waiting for the phone to ring. As one of the SongLeaders says, “Our marvelous dreams are about love.”
“Marvelous Wonderettes” is more than just a tribute to 1950s music, nostalgia and prom craziness. It’s a comedy, as well, that of course in imitating the style and mood of the era, is a lot more innocent than anything you’ll find on even the 8 o’clock TV sitcoms these days. And if not all of the jokes are laugh-out-loud winners, the entire production has a sweetness to it that’s irresistible.
Of course, it walks a fine line, in one sense. The girls in the play are, of course, supposed to be high school kids performing for the first time – amateurs, naturally. At the same time, the four actresses chosen by Theatre Winter Haven amply demonstrate they’re anything but newcomers – their comedic timing and stunningly beautiful vocal skills make them an instant delight to watch. That’s particularly true for Jenn Mandala-Gravel, who plays Missy, perhaps the most geeky of the four, with her granny glasses and frilly hair, as she says lines like “Nobody likes a Peter Peter Pumpkin cheater” with a straight face. When you’ve got Mandala-Gravel’s talent, it’s probably not easy playing what’s supposed to be a newcomer to the stage, but all four of the performers do it so well.
And there’s so much more to like and appreciate about this production, including the small touches: blowing bubbles as they sing “Dream Lover,” the lollipops that coming down from above for the song “Lollipop” or the Allegheny moon that shines on them, and the #2 pencils from Miss McPherson’s class that get handed to the audience members so they can vote in the crucial “Queen of our Dreams” competition, which involves all four of our SongLeaders, and a fifth girl, Judy Carter. Who, you might wonder, is going to win?
“Welcome to the soundtrack of your life, and my life,” said Norman Small, the director of the theater in downtown Winter Haven, just moments before the show began.
But again, you didn’t have to be there in the 1950s to appreciate “Marvelous Wonderettes” and its many charms. It’s a production that nicely evokes a place all of us have been, no matter what year or decade we were born in, when the pursuit of love seemed like the only thing in life that truly mattered. Sigh.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes” plays now through Sunday, Feb. 5, at the theater at the Chain O’Lakes Complex, 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd. in downtown Winter Haven. Tickets are $22 for adults and $19 for students. Show times are Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with an extra 2:30 p.m. show on Saturday, Jan. 28. For tickets, call the box office at 863-294-SHOW, email TWHtickets@aol.com, or log on to www.TheatreWinterHaven.com.

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