Sugar-coated and candy-colored, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a slick feel-good musical designed to warm hearts and provide good cheer.
That mission is accomplished on The Repertory Theatre’s mainstage on a dreary winter’s evening.
A comforting walk down memory lane for those of a certain age, and a nostalgic bit of history for other generations, around 35 major pop hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s are interspersed with a contrived plot.
Playwright Roger Bean has created characters and storylines based on hokey lyrics from girl group songs, and his successful formula has spawned sequels.
At first, the names and situations lifted from such songs as “It’s My Party,” Son of a Preacher Man” and “Leader of the Pack” to advance the story are amusing, then it becomes very cheesy and groan-worthy.
Nevertheless, the audience seemed to revel in the show’s marshmallow world fluffiness. After all, the songs have a good beat and you can dance to them.
Music director Joshua Zecher-Ross emphasizes the fizzy fun, and the band keeps the tempo brisk and bright for peppy pop like “Mr. Sandman,” Lollipop,” “Stupid Cupid,” “It’s In His Kiss” and “Heat Wave,” Ballads such as “Secret Love” and “Sincerely” are presented in yesteryear style.
The musical arrangements are by Brian William Baker, with orchestrations by Michael Borth, and they convey a certain aspect of the era, but without any edge (Both the female anthem “Respect” and “Rescue Me,” made famous by St. Louis’s own Fontella Bass, lack bite.)
The show’s lightweight structure is four schoolgirls entertain at their senior prom in 1958. Second act fast-forwards to 1968, and it’s Springfield High School’s 10-year reunion.
The bubbly, eager-to-please quartet sings a series of numbers, some traditionally arranged for three-part harmony, and their movements are precise. Director Melissa Rain Anderson has combined elements of fantasy – how we perceive that simpler time – and reality – the way it really was — for this teenage girl snapshot.
The four characters are cheerleaders, too, so “Chipmunk Cheer” is part of the schtick. So is voting for prom queen.
Both special occasions are set in the high school gym, and Adam Koch’s set design smartly captures those signature trappings – colorful balloons, streamers, confetti and basketball hoops – while lighting designer Peter Sargent switches between festive moods, slow dances and boy-girl drama. There is even the ubiquitous punch table, with a lime-green libation that practically glows like kryptonite.
The performers are acting out certain stereotypes – the frenemies tussling over the same boy, a good girl with a crush on a teacher, and the gum-chewing ditzy girl with the serious boyfriend.
The four, with their considerable charm, try to inject personality into their roles, but because they are written as broad caricatures, there isn’t much room to stand out.
However, Leanne Smith, as hormonal Suzy, and Morgan Kirner as perky go-getter Missy, mad about her teacher, display fine comedic skills in the funnier two roles.
But hauling an unsuspecting elderly gentleman out of the audience to play the much older teacher, Mr. Lee, although he was a good sport, seemed a bit icky for 2018 – and ’58 and ’68.
Despite nailing her role, Smith is woefully incapable of belting out Aretha Franklin’s signature song, “Respect,” the way it’s meant to be.
Iris Beaumier, as Betty Jean, aka “BJ,” a no-nonsense type tired of being one-upped, and Chiara Trentalange as her best friend, Cindy Lou, the Barbie Doll-cutie who likes being the center of attention, have strong voices and rise to the demands of their meatier songs.
The four are energetic together, harmonize well, and deftly bounce off each other’s shallowly written parts to enliven the bland material.
Costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis ‘s outfits are shiny pastel silhouettes suitably depicting the time.
After the popularity of female-centered jukebox musicals like “Mamma Mia!” “Dreamgirls,” and “Beehive,” and the original blast from the past capturing ‘50s school fun, “Grease,” this one feels artificial and syrupy.
While an enjoyable confection, the show offers nothing new or special. Its wholesome package is tailor-made for Branson.
Yet, like cotton candy and our own school-days’ playlists, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” makes people smile.