In olden times, to commemorate a rite of passage, young people would gather in a public space in the company of chaperones to sing with and dance to music. The music was a confession, it was a catharsis. It told of crushes, first loves, and all manner of attendant, tempest in a teacup sorrows. Compared to now, the lyrics were innocent. Music was life’s soundtrack, its scrapbook. Years later you could hear a song on an oldie station and remember what you were doing, with whom, and where you were when you first heard it. Roger Bean’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” staged with exuberance and joy at the San Pedro Theatre Club, reenacts this magic.
It’s panic time at the 1958 Springfield High School prom. The slated gig gets axed because one of the boys, a butt head, got caught smoking (Really, that’s all he did?). The song girls, the Marvelous Wonderettes, come to the rescue. There’s Betty Jean (Kelsey Bullock), Cindy Lou (Michelle Zelina), Suzy (Kathleen Grosky), and Missy (Amanda Leigh Kraft). Last second dresses, courtesy of Missy, a playlist of almost 30 classic songs, some nifty dance moves (courtesy of Victoria Miller), a bunch of hilarious miscues (teenage girls will be teenage girls) and the student body celebrated an evening of memorable fun. And then life crept in.
It’s a boisterous production set upon an intimate stage. Live music (arranged by Brian William Baker) blasts down from the loft. We’re there, lip synching, dancing in our seats. It’s immediate and personal. It feels spacious and expansive, but it really isn’t. (Indeed, each time Suzy addressed Richie, I’d crane my neck to try to see him. Ditto for when that scoundrel Johnny skulked in from the back with Judy.).
The performances are spot on. You fall for each character. Their joys and woes are our joys and woes. Grosky’s “I only have eyes for you” Suzy. Kraft’s mother hen Missy. And the hilarious dueling divas, Zellina’s Cindy Lou and Bullock’s Betty Jean. That they can sing and dance goes without saying. That they can do so while affecting unscripted outbursts is astonishing. In the first part, each character is well drawn, distinct if not stereotypical. Later, after each has aged ten years, they come to resemble each other. Life the great leveler - disappointments, frustrations, and unfulfilled dreams - has not been all that kind. It did, though, confirm their lifelong friendships.
The actresses do a fine job of showing their character’s current and later lives. Current: first love giddy, histrionic, and petty. Later: worn out, disillusioned, and not a little bitter. Of course they’re going to grow up. It would be disingenuous if they didn’t. Lives evolve and so does the task of music. At 18, music united them in their enthusiastic introduction to what life had to offer. It was a consolation for, a buffer against, the world at large. Guess what? Ten years later, it still was. All you have to do is substitute wisdom for naiveté, heartbreak for temper tantrums. Different songs, different contexts, but the songs remains the same.
Performances are 8pm Thursday — Saturday, 2pm Sunday. The show runs until Sunday, February 1. Tickets are $25. The Theatre is located at 624 South Pacific Avenue, San Pedro, CA 90731. For more information, call (310) or visit thesanpedrotheatreclub.com.