Farmers Alley travels to 70s musical dark time in ‘Marvelous Wonderettes’ sequel
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–There are some shows that are cute and fun and wonderful all in themselves. For example, “Nunsense” or “Greater Tuna” or “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”
Their playwrights, enthused by their success and profit, go on to write sequel after sequel, often where they would have been better off stopping with their initial success.
Kalamazoo’s Farmer’s Alley is currently producing one of these sequels: The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On. It’s a choice, like that of the playwrights, that makes economic sense. The shows are quickly selling out, they’re adding shows and even talking about extending the run into January.
Farmer’s Alley is good at taking any show, no matter what the quality of the material, and giving it a top-rate production. Their shows are routinely good and they’ve earned the loyal audience they have. They have in the past enjoyed success with two of the other Wonderette musicals.
The “Dream On” version is still cute. It has what the other shows have—the four song leaders singing songs from a given decade, involving the audience as impromptu characters, making up drama about each of the four women that loosely matches whatever song they’re going to sing.
That said, it really has little new to distinguish itself from the others or to give a reason to do this show rather than the original which has better-known songs and an ability to still do a bit of surprise at how things will turn out.
Missy, played by Missy Karle, is still the type-A personality who is obsessed with Mr. Lee, their choir teacher—though she is now married to him and expecting a baby. Suzy, played by Mallory King, is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Ritchie, who flashes lights at her. Betty jean, played by Whitney Weiner, is still getting mistreated by Johnny. Cindy Lou, played by Julia Burrows, is still the sophisticated one who wants something more than what the small town offers.
There is a continuation of each of their stories, but not really anything fresh or engaging. Nor are any of the characters compelling enough to make you really care about them, though that’s not really the point of this jukebox musical.
Karle does some of the best work on stage, both as a somewhat nerdy and high-strung character in the first act and a more mature woman in the second. She has a lovely voice and commits to her character’s quirks.
King makes Suzy out to be rather wooden. Yes, she is supposed to be vacuous and dumb, but her face is often expressionless and disconnected, which doesn’t work with the passion she has in her torch songs about her beloved husband. She, does, though, do a wonderful job in reacting to any mention of her mother-in-law.
Weiner doesn’t quite make Betty Jean out to be the tomboy that she is in the other versions of the Wonderettes, but she is entertaining and plays her as more earthy and outspoken than the others.
Burrows’ Cindy Lou feels out of place with the other three. While director and choreographer Sandra Bremer has the other three be almost cartoon characters forced into a type, Burrows shuns that and creates a Cindy Lou who is very real and almost complex. It is interesting, but inconsistent with the rest of the show.
The second act of the Wonderettes moves them into the 70s for their 20-year class reunion, so we get to hear some new music from them, including pieces by the Carpenters and the unforgettable Helen Reddy anthem, “I Am Woman” which Wiener knocks out of the park.
Michael Borth’s vocal and musical arrangements gives stylings to some of the songs that make them less familiar, especially the song “Superstar,” which Burrows provides a beautiful voice for.
As is to be expected from Farmer’s Alley, the technical aspects have been given loving care. Steve Hodges does a delightful job with hair and wigs, immediately setting the decade and making the women look instantly over-the-top.
Lissa Hartridge and Sarah Maurer share costume design duties and they favor feather boas in both decades with each of the women’s signature colors.
Jason Frink has a challenging job with lighting design as does Roger Burleigh in executing it. Not only must it provide fancy lighting for each of the songs, but audience involvement is dependent on the spotlights picking people out in the audience who will fit the needs of the characters they are about to be transformed into.
The choreography is somewhat simple and the women often struggle with it—sometimes intentionally and at other times not so. It does, though, have its fun moments, especially when they do such things as call audience members up on stage to dance the hustle.
The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On is being presented as one of Farmer’s Alley’s cabaret shows, which means the audience sits around tables and they are treated to a delicious raspberry cheesecake and their choice of drinks. The theater goes out of the way to give their guests a warm welcome and to create an entertaining experience that contributes to their sell-outs.
If this particular script choice is weak, it’s understandable that they would want to bring back a version of what has been successful in the past and that their audiences continue to enthusiastically buy tickets for.