Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: 'The Marvelous Wonderettes'

Four women knock themselves out as a gal group in 11th Hour Theatre Company's "The Marvelous Wonderettes," with a storyline that's lame in the first act, socko in the second. Theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

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

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, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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