Wholesome Foursome

"The Marvelous Wonderettes" runs through October 1 at the Merry-go-round Playhouse in Auburn.

The Marvelous Wonderettes. Written and created by Roger Bean. Musical arrangements by Brian William Baker; orchestrations by Michael Borth; vocal arrangements by Bean and Baker. Directed by Tricia Tanguy; choreographed by Janet Miller; musical direction by Mark Goodman. With Meredith Beck, Julia Goretsky, Lulu Lloyd, and Holly O’Brien. At Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse through Oct. 1.

Sweet voices harmonizing to “Mr. Sandman” and “Born Too Late” close out Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s season in The Marvelous Wonderettes. This jukebox musical evokes nostalgia for a simpler time, when radio and 45s brought us all the music we needed – at 17 – to describe our love life. In a very white, upbeat, and heterosexual teen world, “Lollipop” said it all.

This energized production whisks us back to a 1958 high school gym, where a quartet of sweet but charmingly awkward girls have been invited to sing at Springfield High’s senior prom – the scheduled appearance of the all-male Crooning Crabcakes having been cancelled because of the lead lad’s misdemeanors. Like Easter candy in frothy pink, peach, blue and green crinoline-stuffed dresses, the four girls carry the show and, in a somewhat overly long second act, reprise their role at their 10-year reunion.

The straightforward set – a high school gym with a crude stage – is lovingly detailed by designer R. Thomas Ward, right down to its yellow concrete block walls, old water fountains, and battered cage over the wall clock. Ben Hagen’s lighting gives the girls’ songs some sparkling effects (especially with act two’s disco ball), but it is Tiffany Howard’s costumes and Bobbie Zlotnik’s hair design that are definitively retro. Thanks to current Mad Men-inspired fashions, the ’50s now seem stylish compared to the silver-spangled, high-booted, space-age look of the late ’60s.

The girls have aged enough to appear ridiculous in their youthful costumes – and did anyone ever look good in a bouffant hairdo? To complete the picture, choreographer Janet Miller has aptly given them some wannabe cool moves; when uneasy Missy tries to learn the dance steps, she resembles C-3PO having a coughing fit.

Mark Goodman’s unseen five-man orchestra (bass, guitar, and drums) buoys up the girls’ fine voices as they charm us through some 34 numbers, from the saccharine (“Sincerely”) to the silly (“Stupid Cupid”) in one decade, to the poppy-plaintive (“I Only Want to Be With You”) and spirited-sassy (“It’s My Party”) of the next. Written and created by Roger Bean in 1999 (and based on his mother’s high school experience), “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a slim excuse to indulge in memories and a medley of popular songs from a half-century ago. It has no discernable plot, but there is a theme – the friendship (and competition) among teenage girls and their painfully pre-feminist preoccupation with romantic love.

This show is Tricia Tanguy’s directorial debut (an Ithaca College graduate, she played three of the four roles in the Off-Broadway production), and it’s as sprightly and bubbly as you’d want. The four leads are each charming and distinct, with lovely voices and impressive solos; they capture and personalize four perennial high school types.

Holly O’Brien is perfect as Cindy Lou, the pretty-in-pink, most popular girl – completely self-absorbed and confident of her social rank in the ruthless teen hierarchy. Julia Goretsky plays the envious Betty Jean, her supposed best friend; the girls squabble endlessly over boys (and who’s in the spotlight) and ham-fistedly attempt to upstage each other. Ithaca grad Meredith Beck is gum-chewing Suzy, whose placid sweetness keeps them on an even keel; at the reunion she’s the only one married, 8.5 months pregnant, with a tired, distracted air suggesting their girlish notions of romance weren’t terribly grounded in any reality.

Corralling the group’s emotional waywardness is reliable, organized Missy, played by a bespectacled Lulu Lloyd with such winning good will that when it came time for the audience to vote on prom queen, she had my vote. Missy, as we learn, has a crush on their song leader, Mr. Lee (yes, cue the song of the same name). He’s selected from the audience and brought onstage as the center of a few numbers, but on opening night, the front row yielded an elderly man who remained stiffly expressionless, rather than a Will Schuester lookalike.

The Marvelous Wonderettes offers perkiness, catfights, adolescent angst, and school cheer (bite ’em, chipmunks, flip your little tail!). It’s quite well done, but pure cotton candy. Next year’s expanded theater festival, a welcome addition, promises a full musical theater season not just at MGR, but at the downtown Auburn Public Theater. Doubtless it will keep up the quality; let’s hope it adds a bit more substance as well.

Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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