'Wonderettes' at Summer Garden is a lovely throwback
Production follows a band of woman singers, features '50s and '60s standards
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's Marvelous Wonderettes in Act 2 at 1968 10th Reunion from left Jamie Erin Miller (Missy), Katie Gardner (Cindy Lou), Jennifer Grimes (Suzy), Colleen Kerrigan (Betty Jean). (Bud Johnson, Baltimore Sun / July 9, 2011)
This was the era when such harmonizing female groups as the Chordettes of "Mr. Sandman" and "Lollipop" fame climbed the 1954 and 1958 charts. Such success might have raised the hopes and dreams of Springfield High singers Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy and Suzy, who were chosen as last-minute replacements for a singing boys group after the boys got into serious trouble and were suspended.
For this production, Summer Garden is fortunate to have Jerry Vess, a skilled director who lives in Annapolis. Vess has assembled a strong cast able to project a fresh, seemingly spontaneous quality that raises the fun level of their polished individual performances to create an evening of light, enjoyable entertainment.
Nostalgia extends beyond the show's trip down an uncomplicated, musical memory lane to arouse fond memories for many who recalls the Chesapeake Music Hall — the Annapolis dinner theater that flourished for 15 years until its close in 2004. It was at CMH that Vess was a colleague of Anita O'Connor, who serves here as music director. A talented musician and performer, O'Connor has coaxed first-rate vocal performances from each singer while injecting a genuine fondness for this distinctive music.
In the first act, each member of this foursome shines vocally while projecting an innocence of high-school adolescents having a good time. In Act 2, which takes place 10 years later at their Springfield High reunion, each cast member creates a more adult image, expressing concerns about lost love and growing family responsibilities.
Katie Gardner frequently steals the show as pretty, attention-grabbing, boyfriend-stealing Cindy Lou. Colleen Kerrigan is Cindy Lou's impatient but generally forgiving best friend, Betty Jean, who zealously guards her space in the spotlight and her boyfriend's attention. Jennifer Grimes plays low-key, shy, likable Suzy, and Jamie Erin Miller is cast as Missy, who tries to control the debuting group of talented novices.
"The Marvelous Wonderettes" has a strong opener with the ensemble skillfully harmonizing "Mr. Sandman," "Lollipop," and "Sugartime" to evoke an innocent, bygone youth for boomers and their predecessors while introducing younger audience members to the simpler period.
After the initial six-song segment ending with "Dream Lover," soloists shine with Grimes' Suzy delivering a terrific "Lipstick on Your Collar" and Miller's Missy displaying her equally impressive pipes in the dreamy ballad "Secret Love." The fun intensified when an audience member was selected to play teacher Mr. Lee, Missy's confessed secret love. A good sport, the audience member chosen on opening night had no problem getting into the full spirit of ASGT's production in his amusing onstage bit in Act 1 and for a brief return in Act 2.
Costumes go from matching crinolines under a rainbow of pastels in pink, rose, blue and green in Act 1 to the more tailored garb featuring similar colors worn in Act 2. A charming element is the authenticity of the described "home economics-created, Butterick pattern-inspired" costumes of ASGT's Lori Tietz that help define the characters' images.
High points of Act 2 include Kerrigan's sharp delivery of Betty Jean's "It's My Party" and Gardner's strong "Leader of the Pack" sung by her decidedly toned-down, less ambitious and softened Cindy Lou. In Act 2 Grimes' Suzy is noticeably pregnant, belting out a powerful "Respect" number to end the solo segment on a most impressive note. And Miller's Missy has grown considerably more confident as she reveals her continuing relationship with Mr. Lee.
Throughout this production, all four stars convey a winning rapport that compliments their vocal harmony, and they deliver adroit comic timing and real dance skills that evoke fun moves of the well-choreographed past.
Bringing essential high-voltage energy to ASGT's production is a trio of on-stage musicians headed by conductor/pianist Ken Kimble, with Ahren Buchheister on guitar and Larry Berry on drums.
Performances at 8:30 p.m. continue Thursdays through Fridays through July 24. Purchase tickets online at summergarden.com or call the box office at 410-268-9212 for reservations.