Review: 'The Marvelous Wonderettes'

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Janet Rowley, Laura Catlaw, Colleen Hazlett, and Kat Borrelli in "The Marvelous Wonderettes." Photo by Kathryn Raines.

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

And now, the names of four of the hardest-working women on any stage in Philadelphia and, currently, maybe anywhere. They are Kat Borrelli, Laura Catlaw, Colleen Hazlett and Janet Rowley, and together they become a gal-group of singers called the Marvelous Wonderettes, each night on the top floor of the Adrienne Theatre.

There, 11th Hour Theatre Company is presenting a show by the same name. Actually, it’s not all that much of a show, particularly in the first half, but The Marvelous Wonderettes is one heck of a concert throughout. In harmony, the four women have voices as smooth and delectable as freshly churned gelato. And they not only sing, they sing and sing and sing, 33 songs in all and in full.

The women, who each have distinct characters, begin the show as a group of 1958 high-school seniors at their prom. They’re a last-minute replacement for the boy’s glee club, the Crooning Crabcakes, whose leader has been caught smoking. The songs — “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Lollipop,” “Stupid Cupid” and the like — are ’50s standards, perform with brio and all the cutesy trimmings, like oversized lollipops.

But this act, in which the singers argue, upstage each other, bounce steadily in their prom dresses loaded with crinolines and do all the high-school girly things you’d imagine from the ’50s, is too self-conscious and overdone to be cute.

It’s also one long set-up: the entire act leads to a hoot of a performance 10 years later, when the gals have stories to tell about their young adulthoods, sing song like “It’s My Party,” “You Don’t Own Me” and “Son of a Preacher Man” in character, and offer funny references to several people whose original mentions in Act 1 seemed lame.

So the script by Roger Bean makes the ’50s seem dull and the ’60s insane and depending on your outlook, maybe that was so. (11th Hour will do Bean’s holiday version of this show at the end of the year.)

If you can look past the extreme differences between the tone of The Marvelous Wonderettes’ two halves and focus on the music, you’re in for a fun time. It’s accompanied by recorded orchestration — in this case a good thing, because it provides a real feel for the studio recordings of the songs, which the women dress up in style. In return, costume designer Lauren Perigard dresses them up perfectly for each decade. Mark Valenzuela’s sound design employs echo chambers and other effects to bring the decades back.

Megan Nicole O’Brien, one of 11th Hour’s co-founders, directs The Marvelous Wonderettes for maximum zest in the second act, when the women exude a charm they could only fake as high-school girls. Forget about memorizing all those lyrics — O’Brien and choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes have given the gals enough hand-jive and hip-bopping to tax anyone’s muscle memory. Oh, that the decades had gone as smoothly as their performances.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

The Marvellous Wonderettes: Presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through June 24. Tickets: $15-$30. Information: 267-987-9865 or 11thhourtheatrecompany.org.

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