Decades of harmony and hairdos
Nostalgic kitsch of a rare order propels “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse. This West Coast premiere of creator-director Roger Bean’s salute to the great girl groups is wildly entertaining froth, resembling a nonspectral “Forever Plaid” in crinolines.
Anyone who attended high school may experience deja vu upon entering the auditorium. The heart-decorated, uncredited set has the makeshift charm of a pep club rally or, in this case, the Springfield High senior prom, circa 1958.
A loudspeaker announcement from the principal introduces the title songbirds, opening with (what else?) “Mr. Sandman.” Their loopy yet pitch-perfect reading establishes the show’s satirical replication, with Janet Miller’s witty choreography worth volumes of era footnotes.
The staging cements each girl’s stylized archetype, and costumer Susan Branch’s fabulous sherbet-colored formals make their own character statements.
In pink is sultry mantrap Cindy Lou (Kirsten Benton), who never met a ballot box she wouldn’t stuff. Her opposite number is “best friend” and wiseacre Betty Jean (Beth Malone), trapped in bridesmaid’s hues of sea-foam green.
The group’s sweetly dizzy peacemaker is gum-popping Suzy (Bets Malone), a chirpy blond whose baby blues match her apparel. Finally, there is Missy (Kim Huber), the bespectacled instigator of both the Wonderettes and their Butterick’s-patterned wardrobe, who, appropriately, wears peach.
Addressing the house directly in character throughout, these prom queen hopefuls expertly harmonize through ‘50s-era standards, using a paper “dream catcher” to cue their crepe-paper-weighted revelations.
Following an audience vote, Act 1 ends in the crowning of the winner. Act 2 jumps to the 10-year class reunion, to which the Wonderettes return in electric-shaded mini-dresses and hip-chick hairdos. Their ‘60s numbers are even more jury-rigged to accommodate the numerous surprises wrought in a decade.
Bean’s clever conceit maintains a lovingly skewered attitude toward the material. J. Day’s lighting, supposedly run by Suzy’s beloved Richie, has to go all over the place, doing so with great aplomb. John Feinstein’s sound design is impressive, given the vagaries of head miking and prerecorded accompaniment.
However, the paramount delights come from the marvelous wonders stage center, who form a spectacular triple-threat quartet. Between the seamless blend of distinctive vocal equipment (overseen by musical director Brian Baker) and consistent intent, they are Broadway-ready.
Take Benton’s seductress, Julie Newmar gone hormonal, with many sly bits of business, like touching up her Max Factor during “Lipstick on Your Collar.” This makes her vocal drive and unexpected poignancy in Act 2 all the more effective.
This holds true as well for Beth Malone, who goes for the seriocomic jugular. Moving from a wacky attack that wouldn’t shame Joan Davis to a blend of Judy Carne and Petula Clark, Malone’s ingenuity and house-shaking belt are irresistible.
As is Bets Malone, a hilariously idealized version of Betty Cooper from the “Archie” comics, with Sandra Dee’s attitude and Brenda Lee’s chops. And Huber, a top talent if ever one lived, is amazing, her physical clowning as subtle as her rich instrument is soaring.
It is possible to locate cracks in Bean’s veneer, which is really a polished gloss on cruise-ship tactics, or an expanded “Happy Days” riff. Still, though “The Marvelous Wonderettes” hardly advances the form, it is deliciously enjoyable, and one scarcely notices any discrepancies until floating homeward.
‘The Marvelous Wonderettes’
Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach
When: Today and Tuesday-
Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; March 23, 2 and 7 p.m.
Ends: March 23
Contact: (310) 372-4477
Running time: 1 hour,