If holiday musicals were measured against an ideal of total predictability, Winter Wonderettes at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte would have to be regarded as a masterwork. Roger Bean’s sequel to The Marvelous Wonderettes brings back the same slightly goofy high school cheerleaders who formed a vocal quartet for their 1958 prom and reunited ten years later. It’s still 1968, the Wonderettes are still aging bobby-soxers who specialize in tight harmonies arranged by Bean and Brian Baker, and the thinly sketched characters of Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy are exactly as we remember them. Once again, Betty Jean is the stressed-out Wonderette, staging the Christmas show at Harper’s Hardware without the expected appearance of her boss, the Santa of a celebration that should include a sackful of bonus checks. Cindy Lou is upsetting Betty Jean again, planning to leave for the big city after the holidays and reminding us, with her wanton ways, why she and Springfield, Ohio, aren’t a perfect fit. Having importuned her one-time Phys. Ed. Teacher, Mr. Lee, in the previous jukebox episode, “Why don’t you marry me, Bill?” Missy is back from their whirlwind honeymoon, still gushing over her man and eager to regale us with a travelogue of Christmas songs from such exotic locales as Hawaii and Germany. Most remarkable of all, after delivering the twin girls that she was massively pregnant with at the reunion, Suzy is already showing again, hoping that this time it’s a boy. Adding to the sameness, Actor’s Theatre has brought back the same cast and production team – with the same director, Billy Ensley – that introduced us to The Marvelous Wonderettes just six months ago.
While a hardware store doesn’t sound like a promising locale for a Christmas musical, Chip Decker imbues his set design with a Santa’s Workshop charm, sprucing up the cozy place on each side with panels that swivel to reveal a hearth and a tree. Rian Barbour throws a slight twist into the Santa outfits that discreetly show off the ladies’ curves, choosing blue fabric instead of red to compliment the white furry fringes, a tribute to the Jewish folk in the audience. Some zany work comes from the toymakers in Actor’s Theatre’s prop shop, most notably the flashlight castanets used in “¿Dondé Está Santa Claus?” and the bamboo brushes that tap the soft percussion of “Mele Kalikimaka.” Soft would be an apt description of Bean’s songlist, beginning with The Chordettes’ “Mister Sandman” as morphed by Amy Grant into “Mister Santa” and ending with a “Winter Wonderland” re-tailored for our Wonderettes. Music director Ryan Stamey crafts the vocal harmonies expertly, but instrumentally, he doesn’t help matters with accompaniments that make Muzak sound like Frank Zappa by comparison.
Stamey’s flaccid saccharine is likely by design, since sentimentality and cheery cheesiness seem to be Bean’s chief ambitions. With the audience transformed into fellow employees, we’re all in crisis as Betty Jean and the ensemble sing us into intermission with “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” when those bonus checks fail to arrive. Equally sentimental – and musically forgettable – is sassy Cindy Lou’s moment of reflection, “All Those Christmas Clichés,” after she reveals why the season doesn’t bring her joy. Neither Michelle Fleshman as Betty Jean nor Lauren Marlowe Segal as Cindy Lou can be blamed when these deservedly obscure songs fall flat. Both prove their mettle as singers before intermission, Fleshman as the lead singer in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and Segal as the lead island temptress in “(We Wanna See) Santa Do the Mambo.”
Fronting the ensemble in “A Marshmallow World” and leading the castanet quartet, Karen Christensen doesn’t truly shine as the pregnant Suzy until she surprises us with her unseemly bravura in “Suzy Snowflake,” presumably defying doctor’s orders. As the ever-cheerful Missy, Sarah Mack draws the lead vocals for “Jingle Bell Rock” and the Hawaiian excursion, but her most effective shticks are her interactions with the audience, the frequently-referenced “Find the Elf” game, and her continued harassment of the Mr. Lee du jour. Mack is dominant in the audience participation sphere, but it isn’t her exclusive domain. Cindy Lou is ready to console herself with Bob the plumber, another audience member whom she’ll ultimately proposition with “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” The entire ensemble – and the entire audience – are all involved in a “Bells Medley,” as sections of the Harper’s Hardware workforce get to perform various silliness when cued by the words “ring,” “jingle,” and “sleigh” in the songs. This orgy of audience involvement was actually the dramatic climax of the thinly plotted evening. Yet the opening night crowd, apparently not primed for sharp comedy or spiritual profundity, sounded like they were having a fine time.
Winter Wonderettes continues though January 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.