by Lisa Jarisch

At first glance, it almost seemed a cruel joke on the part of the Mac-Haydn Theatre management—choosing as the last show of the season The Marvelous Wonderettes, another jukebox musical, with “nothing” but a four-person all-female cast, following hard on the heels of the marvelous and wonderous Jersey Boys. Talk about a hard act to follow! To be honest, I more than briefly toyed with the idea to skip out on a show I didn’t think stood a chance of holding its own against not only the still-vivid memory of Jersey Boys, but virtually every production offered this season. Ultimately, I decided that choice would do an undeserved disservice to the cast and production team’s efforts. And so,while also recognizing that a long, cold , dark-stage winter is just around the corner, I made a solo trek to Chatham on a sultry, steamy, stormy September evening,without my usual companions to share the experience.

And how glad am I that I made the journey! I willingly concede that it would have been a disservice indeed , to no one less than myself, to miss this final show of the 2023 season. Much more than “Jersey Boys 2.0:The Distaff Version”, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a full-blown, full-realized gem of a musical in its own right, celebrating in both performance and production a wealth of female talent. The quartet of ladies whose glorious voices and presence take the stage for every minute of the performance put their hearts, souls, and not inconsiderable acting talents into this fluffy, peppy, nostalgic, sometimes poignant, and thoroughly enjoyable show. The Marvelous Wonderettes can indeed proudly, and justly,lay claim to being a jukebox musical of the finest kind.

The plot, which is as thin as the strands of the glitter curtain twinkling behind their prom appearance certainly can’t hold a candle to the biographical Jersey Boys story, but the four-woman cast wondrously and marvelously surmounts such paltry obstacles with their heartfelt performances and their joyous harmonies. Weaving some rather thin story lines for the sake of featuring the songs of the era,The Marvelous Wonderettes pays tribute to the myriad groups and individual artists whose sounds epitomized the late1950s and 1960s, and offers up a glorious collage of the music of those two decades.

It is the bravura performances of each member of the cast that make this “Forever Plaid: Ladies Edition” the sheer pleasure it is. Each performer creates a strong, vivid and unique character in their own right, and tells her character’s story through the more than two dozen songs that flow virtually non-stop through the production. Their harmonies are as full as their crinoline skirts, and their individual story lines play out through solo numbers throughout the show, with Act Two being the strongest display of characterization and plot. I will venture to say we all recognize these characters from our own high school days, whether we remember them from the 50s, 60s, 70s,…and even these post-millenium times. I will not admit to which decade I belong,but we all knew the prom queens, high school sweethearts, feuding BFFs, spotlight seekers and stealers, girls next door, and secret crush holders who populated and sometimes bedeviled all our high school years. They are all here in glorious fully-realized personification, singing their stories with perfection pitch, heartfelt sincerity, and consummate talent.

Adeline Trivers barges on stage in her debut at the Mac with a portrayal of Betty Jean that both smacks us in the face and yet subtly channels Stockard Channing’s Rizzo in Grease. In song and character presentation, she creates a portrait of a sassy, snappy, seemingly hard-as-nails borderline bad girl who eventually shows us, and her quartet partners, her softer, vulnerable side. Her efforts to sabotage her Boyfriend Stealing BFF Cindy Lou’s “scheduled” moments in the spotlight with bubbles, tambourines, and dropping Allegheny Moons all while maintaining flawless vocal harmony, are hilarious and performed with perfect comic timing. Betty Jean’s frustration with being unable to ignite her fire baton for the simultaneous 30-second Talent competition is a silent 30 second gem of pure physical comedy. Lucille Ball would be proud .Her absolute best moments come in Act Two,where the gathering at their ten year reunion Betty Jean reveals a marriage shattered by the unfaithfulness of Johnny, the boyfriend from senior year who was cheating on her, even then, with her BFF cum arch nemesis Cindy Lou. Despite Johnny’s faults and failures, Betty Jean still maintains “I only want to be with you,” as Trivers delivers big-time with a trifecta of plaintive and heartfelt vocals including the above mentioned song, as well as “That’s when the tears start” and “It’s My Party,” when she realizes Johnny is now showering his wandering attentions on Judy Carter, another girl from the “good old days” of their 1958 Prom. A most worthy debut on the Mac’s stage indeed.

Stephanie Prestage as Cindy Lou is immediately recognizable as THAT girl from high school….the Head Cheerleader, the Boyfriend Stealer, the Wanna Be Diva, and the most likely to be voted Most Likely To EVERYTHING. She flouts, flounces, preens, pouts and otherwise parades her way through Prom Night, alternately fueling and extinguishing her ongoing “feud with her BFF Betty Jean, while doing her best to win the coveted Prom Queen crown. In a fun bit of audience participation, theater-goers find a ballot nestled in their playbill for the performance, and at the appropriate time, are instructed to vote for the candidate of their choice for Prom Queen. Ballots are collected by the quartet and handed over to, supposedly, be tallied, and the winner is announced and crowned. ( Spoiler Alert—of sorts: The winner delivers the song of her choice, which turns out to be “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.” I leave it to imagination as to who that winner may be…..)

Returning to her reunion in 1968, Cindy Lou’s life has not been a fairy tale romance of any kind. Delivering her story through a stunning three-song Prestage reveals her character’s journey through love, heartache, and heartbreak, delivering “Son of a Preacher Man,” and“ Maybe,” with ever-increasing anguish , until finally “Leader of the Pack” shatters her heart and the hearts of her quartet-mates listening to this heart-wrenching, soul-baring vocal confession.

Rachel Pantazis, who has left an indelible mark on this season with her glorious, powerful soprano voice and her in-depth characterizations, is almost unrecognizable as the gawky, awkward, performance movement challenged, glasses-wearing Missy, who despite being almost always a dance step or hand gesture behind can belt out a song with the best of them. Having taken on a variety of roles this season, from Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, Mary DelGado in Jersey Boys, and now one- quarter of the Marvelous Wonderettes,she is clearly enjoying every moment of her time on stage,and her joy shines through with her performance ,as she harbors a soon not-to-be- so- secret love for Mr. Lee, the quartet’s Songleader. In addition to bringing her glorious voice to the harmonies in the ensemble numbers, Pantazis creates a marvelous on-going interaction with an audience member selected as beau Mr. Lee, who at the performance attended, was easily “coaxed’ on stage and serenaded by a Man of My Dreams medley. Moving along, Missy evolves from the relatively shy, Made in Home Ec class costumer for the group– “Butterick Pattern Number 2357!”– almost Den Mother figure of the group in high school to a 28 year old woman more than ready to hear those “Wedding Bell Blues” that she begs for and ultimately belts out with great fervor and intensity. After announcing at Reunion that she has been “having pizza” with the apparently gun-shy Mr. Lee for five years, she freely admits that her adulation, attraction and anxious desire for a proposal is rooted “It’s in his kiss” . After her almost desperate and despairing delivery of “Wedding Bell Blues” she joins Cindy in a personalized rendition of “You don’t Own Me,” finally realizing her own value as woman and her potential as a wife. All’s well that ends well as “Mr Lee du Jour” returned to the stage with great good nature to “join” Pantazis in pending wedded bliss, even offering up a bit of buck and wing and two- step. Being such a good sport earned him a well-deserved round of applause from both the audience and the Marvelettes themselves.

And then there’s Cydney Gleckner. What a joy she has been at the Mac this summer. She has brought her considerable vocal chops to every production she has graced this season, and as Suzy, the love struck senior sighing and swooning over her high school sweetheart Ritchie, who conveniently happens to be running lights for the girls’ prom and reunion performances, she turns in yet another strong signature performance. Happy and peppy and bursting with young love and big bubble gum bubbles throughout Act One ,with a giggly, heartfelt rendition of “Stupid Cupid “going out to her one true love, she literally skips into the Talent portion demonstrating her prowess at continuously ankle-skipping and chewing gum at the same time. (If you know, you know of the ankle-skip ball toy, or lemon skip twist toy). Gleckner doesn;t miss a beat, or in this case, a skip as she competes for the coveted Queen’s crown. I do not, however recommend that the average high school graduate of any age attempt to recreate this choreographic “feet” of derring-do. In Act Two, as they reunite for their ten year reunion, she appears, heavily pregnant with Ritchie’s baby, and confesses to her fellow Marvelettes that their marriage is not the happy -ever -after she dreamed it would be ten years earlier. Gleckner brings down the house as Suzy first pours out her anguish with her marriage with “Maybe I know” and “Rescue Me”, before seguing into demanding “Respect” in a powerful rendition that rivals Aretha Franklin at her best.

For her part, Ashley DeLane Burger has hit it out of the park with her solid, tight direction and inspired choroegraphy. She has ingeniously choreographed the cast’s almost constant use of stand microphones, who manipulate them as naturally as a third arm. Her Marvelettes have perfectly captured the classic hand and body movement style so representative of the “girl groups” of the 50s. It is a joy to watch the smooth, polished movements throughout the performance.

Annie Watson’s costume design perfectly captures the full flavor of 1950s and the 1960s fashions. Carrying through an individual color for each of the Wonderettes from Prom Night in 1958 to Ten Year Reunion in 1968, they create a signature look from crinolines to mini-skirted, flower-motif outfits. Their work is accented and completed by the hair and wig design of Emily Allen, who “Marvelously” coifs the Wonderettes for their prom and reunion appearances.

Andrew Gmoser’s lighting, as always, sparkles and shines in all the right places, and takes a dark and almost sinister turn when called for. Swirling starlight evokes the dreamy atmosphere of proms everywhere, while his color-changing glitter curtain in Act One, and white backdrop in Act Two perfectly complement the girls’ numbers, as well as highlighting and flattering their costumes in their individual signature colors. For perhaps the strongest storyline in the show, Gmoser creates a breathtaking look for the revelations of Prestage’s Cindy Lou. Harsh, glaring, sharp yellow lighting pierces the stage providing the perfect setting for Prestage’s musically tragic tale of life since Prom Night 1958. Bravo to Gmoser for a season of unique, brilliant in every sense of the word, lighting. Each and every production he has shared his talents with has been made all the better for his work.

John Saunders has exchanged his Producing Artistic Director top hat for an artist’s beret for this production, sharing scenic design duties with Board of Director President Paul Colarusso. Together they have created a most effective and evocative set for the show. With cases full of Springfield High Chipmunks—Go Chipmunks !– trophies and awards, crepe paper garland festooning the walls, team championship banners hanging, and my personal favorite touch, a vintage Fallout Shelter sign, the Mac’s stage is transformed to the perfect 1950s gym decked out for Prom Night, fortunately minus the traditional stench of sweaty gym socks. The shimmering glitter curtain provides the ideal backdrop for the Marvelous Wonderettes to strut their stuff, while the Prom Queen’s crown rests majestically on a red velvet cushion, waiting for The Moment when the chosen queen receives her award. Special kudos to the stage crew who during intermission transform the set over to the Ten Year/1968 Reunion look envisioned and designed by Saunders and Colarusso,complete with classic “flower power” motifs on the stage and steps of the Springfield High gym. The hallmark of good scenic design lies in the attention to the details, and clearly Team Saunders and Colarusso have learned this lesson well– even the portrait of high school Principal Varney changes between acts. Not to take anything away from Colarusso’s input, but as the 2023 season comes to its close at the Mac, a special note is warranted: Saunders is the perfect example of a theatrical Hat Trick; his skill and expertise as director, performer, and now, scenic designer are invaluable assets to the Mac, and will hopefully be on display for many a season to come.

The Marvelous Wonderettes bring their reunion performance to a close as they share “Thank you and Goodnight” with their “classmates” AKA the assembled audience. It is a perfect, almost bittersweet farewell to the entire Mac-Haydn 2023 season, which has been nothing short of sensational in its entirety. This last show of the season is, to quote a favorite college professor , great good fun. (admittedly he was speaking of Titus Andronicus at the time, but then, the British have always had a most quirky sense of humor). In any case, The Marvelous Wonderettes leaves us applauding, smiling, humming, and with warm fuzzy memories of days gone by. to hold onto until the 2024 season arrives. May we be blessed with a soft winter that passes swiftly to that Opening Night.

The Marvelous Wonderettes: Written and Created by Roger Bean. Musical Arrangements Brian William Baker. Vocal Arrangements Roger Bean and Brian Willam Baker. Orchestrations Michael Borth Cast: Stephanie Prestage (Cindy Lou), Rachel Pantazis (Missy),Adeline Trivers (Betty Jean), Cydney Gleckner (Suzy). Directed and Choreographed by Ashley DeLane Burger. Music Director Eric Shorey. Assistant Choreographer Bella DePaola. Production Supervisor Eoghan Hartley. Technical Director Bernadette Davis. Set Designers John Saunders and Paul Colarusso. Lighting Design Andrew Gmoser. Costume Design Annie Watson. Sound Design Sean McGinley. Props Designer Adriana Ayala.Hair and Wig Design Emily Allen

The Marvelous Wonderettes runs September 7-September 17, 2023, at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 State Route 203, Chatham, NY 12037. Call 518-392-9292 for tickets. Run time is two hours including intermission. http://www.machaydntheatre.or

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