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By John Quinn
Posted: Nov. 24, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
The "juke box musical" is a successful format. Compilations of songs that evoke a particular theme or era, they enjoy a built-in audience of music buffs and the nostalgic. Unlike a revue, the songs are held together by a weak glue of generally superficial plot, and therein lies the rub. In a show like this, it's all about the music, so the performances must be pitch-perfect.
A quartet of pitch-perfect sopranos revives pop songs of the '50s and '60s in "The Marvelous Wonderettes," the first production of The Box Theater at its new location in downtown Mt. Clemens. These admirable voices belong to Eleonore Ellero-Groth, Lauren Fuller, Andrea Thibodeau and Joana Tuzzo. Adult women all, they assume the unenviable task of portraying four rather ditzy high school girls, dragooned at the last minute into entertaining at the 1958 Senior Prom of good ol' Springfield High. Along the way we learn what's on a teenage girl's mind – boys, mostly – and witness some pretty prickly incidents of rivalry, both amorous and artistic. It's a coy conceit that, since the act is unrehearsed, the prom performance is spontaneous, prone to error and therefore pretty funny.
But again, the plot is superficial.
It does, however, provide the envelope for an Act I filled with songs, largely originated by girl groups in the 1950s. The stripped-down musical arrangements, performed by bassist Richard Bright, drummer David Zwolinski and musical director Jeff Bobick on keyboard, are never intrusive and allow the vocals to shine. The standout numbers include the complex, close harmonies of late Swing, especially the "marvelous" renditions of the Chordettes "Mr. Sandman" and "Lollipop," and Eleonore Ellero-Groth's dreamy rendition of "Allegheny Moon."
As if a prom-full of contemporary songs aren't enough, Act II finds the girls reassembled to perform at their 10-year reunion. Not only do we get an update on their lives, we get to enjoy the music of the '60s, with a heavy emphasis on the driving beats of Rhythm & Blues and Rock 'n' Roll. Here the songbirds can belt – and belting is a good thing. Sure, Lauren Fuller had the first chance in her joyously over-the-top take on "Secret Love" in the first act, but here Joana Tuzzo takes center stage for a gutsy "It's My Party." What is unexpected is Andrea Thibodeau's star turn. As Susy, who seems a little more retiring than the other three, her voice stays soft and low – until the finale. There, in a fiery combination of "Rescue Me" and "Respect," Susy confronts her finagling husband.
John Forlini, artist director of The Box and show director of "The Marvelous Wonderettes," has kept the ambiance of his old space as he moved the theater into the storefront that once held his coffee shop, Che Cosa, and opening the intimate Box Café, around the corner on Pine St. His two establishments are now connected by corridor and, if "Wonderettes" is any indication, they are both off to a running start.
SHOW DETAILS: "The Marvelous Wonderettes" continues at The Box Theater, 90 Macomb Place, Mount Clemens, Friday-Sunday through Dec. 8, plus Thursday, Nov. 29. Running time: 2 hours. Tickets: $20-$22. For information: 586-954-2677 or www.theboxtheater.com.
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