The Marvelous Wonderettes

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 30, 2009

The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dina DiCostanzo (Cindy Lou), Tempe Thomas (Betty Jean), Laura Taylor (Missy) and Cat Davis (Suzy)
The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dina DiCostanzo (Cindy Lou), Tempe Thomas (Betty Jean), Laura Taylor (Missy) and Cat Davis (Suzy)  

I have a pretty high tolerance for cheesy musicals with thin plots.

The Marvelous Wonderettes, Northlight Theatre's kick-off production for its 35th season, stretches that tolerance to the breaking point.

I can understand why it's a hit: classic tunes from the 50s and 60s a-plenty, nothing shocking or inappropriate, an appealing cast of attractive young actresses, and a sketch of a plot that you could follow even if the dialog were delivered in Russian. It's completely mindless entertainment.

And the audience seemed to enjoy it enough -- in fact the show has just extended an additional week. So my opinion here really doesn't matter.

That said, I left the show exhausted. I could not bear the overly amplified, canned arrangements (which sound like they are courtesy of a Karaoke machine) that overpower both the singers and the lighthearted tone of the show. And I'm annoyed by jukebox musicals that think they are reinventing the form, as director and writer Roger Bean indicates in his director notes. I was actually quite surprised and disappointed that Northlight would choose to launch their new season with such an uninspired production.

I will say that the cast of four is wonderful, and they work very hard to sell the material. Cat Davis, Dina DiCostanzo, Laura Taylor, and Tempe Thomas play the girl group who are asked to sing at their 1958 senior prom as a last minute replacement. In act one, it's the prom, and they giddily perform all those 50s songs we know and love. Most of the time, the main motivation for launching into a song is a boy whom they are crushing on.

Act two sags. I won't reveal the *spoiler* as to the context of the second act, but suffice it to say, it's just an excuse to exploit more songs, yet from another decade. (But really -- nothing much happens, aside from a costume and wig change.)

There are some fine bits of comedy, such as the collection of the prom queen votes and some brief audience interaction -- both moments that require spontaneity by these unique and talented actresses. However, most of the time they are rigidly stuck behind their microphones singing to those canned arrangements.

What's so frustrating is that Michael Carnahan's physical production so faithfully recreates a vintage high school prom, complete with miles of streamers, punch bowls placed on pastel-skirted tables and basketball hoops hung above your head. And Bobby Pearce's costume and wig designs clearly define who these four ladies are before they open their mouths. It *looks* fun.

But -- and I know I keep harping on this -- the music is the bulk of the show and those obnoxious arrangements are much too distracting.

The Chicago premiere of The Marvelous Wonderettes runs through November 1, 2009, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie. For more information, visit

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at