At the hop
Dance and sing into summer with Chico Theater Company’s pop-song musical
Using some of the best popular songs of the 1950s and ’60s as a vehicle, Chico Theater Company’s latest musical provides a very satisfying evening of innocent summer fun. Each of the solo and ensemble numbers during the opening-night (June 7) performance of the colorful and affable The Marvelous Wonderettes was performed with an appropriate measure of over-the-top squeaky-cleanness and accompanied by its own well-suited choreography.
Act 1 is set at a 1958 high-school prom, where the four women of The Marvelous Wonderettes—each in a radiantly colored dress—revive juke-box staples of the era (“Lollipop,” “Mr. Sandman,” etc.) as a last-minute replacement act for the evening (due to the fact, we are told, that one of the Crooning Crabcakes—the boys’ glee club that was supposed to perform that night—was suspended from school). And, adding to the drama, all four bandmates are soon selected as prom-queen nominees.
As the slightly nerdy and unlucky-in-love Betty Jean, Max Zachai was quite dynamic, combining a powerful singing voice and plenty of comic relief, most of which was directed at rival and high-school hottie Cindy Lou, aptly played by Meghan Murphy. Murphy seized her role as a naughty beauty with a penchant to kiss and tell. Nicole Rayner was suitably innocent as the giggling Suzy, whose squealing exuberance, ever-present bubble gum, and allegiance to Richie, the prom’s spotlight operator, helped build her character. Finally, Stacy Sudicky was awesome as Missy, the shy, bespectacled Wonderette who exhibits a lack of self-confidence and has a big-time crush on one of her teachers.
Each performer was quite believable in her role, and was showcased in her own character-fitting numbers. As the rightfully suspicious Betty Jean, Zachai offered the Connie Francis hit, “Lipstick on Your Collar,” while Rayner also performed a number made famous by Francis, “Stupid Cupid,” in which she asks Cupid to set her free because “I can’t do my homework and I can’t think straight.”
Sudicky poured out her heart in Doris Day’s “Secret Love,” a song that alludes to her teacher crush; and Murphy killed it on Ruth Brown’s song of self-assurance, “Lucky Lips.”
The four prom-queen candidates brought some necessary depth to the production by offering distinct, unique personalities, each with her own idiosyncrasies and quirks. In addition to bopping along with the bouncy songs, we were also inclined to cheer along, and in turn sympathize, with each of the young women.
The audience was nicely immersed in Springfield High’s school spirit (“Go, Chipmunks!”) and following the prom-queen candidates’ appeals to win us over, we each cast an official, and hilariously written, “Queen of Your Dreams” ballot for the evening’s performance.
In Act 2, we join the foursome at their 10-year reunion, in the same high-school gym—only the punch bowl has been replaced with bottles of wine. With their characters nicely established, the women are revisited, now with late-’60s hairdos, dresses (with furry hems and cuffs), go-go boots and love lives. Our heroines catch up with each other about life’s new challenges and delightfully sing and dance to a bunch of ’60s songs. Standout tunes include Martha and the Vandellas’ “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Things are naturally less fluffy a decade after the events of Act 1 as we witness the grown-up women becoming more self-realized and self-assertive. Perfectly chosen songs—such as “Respect,” made famous by Aretha Franklin—help the women in expressing their newly found independence.
Director/choreographer Judi Souza did a great job of bringing together a lively, energetic production. But in the end, it was her work with the talented quartet and their sprightly performance of the two dozen or so memorable hits of the ’50s and ’60s that made the show, and provided a marvelous way to kick off the summer.