Last time we looked in on Roger Bean's obscure and aging girls group, The Wonderettes, they were singing together for the first time since the Springfield High School prom of 1958. It was now 1968 when they met again at their graduating class's 10-year reunion, and it made a big difference: copycat girl groups actually had some hits to sing!
Well, six months have elapsed in Bean's fantasy Springfield between The Marvelous Wonderettes and his sequel, Winter Wonderettes. With an exact alignment of the stars, that same amount of time has elapsed in 2012 since Actor's Theatre of Charlotte introduced us to the female quartet. It is now — must we say it? — winter in Springfield. Or whenever politically correct holiday happenings actually occur. Betty Jean has to count on Suzy, Missy and best friend Cindy Lou — her fellow Wonderettes — to save the Christmas party at Harper's Hardware from total ruin.
There's also a complete alignment in the Actor's Theatre stars who are returning, under director Billy Ensley's guidance, to sing Bean's seasonal Yuletide playlist. Once again, Michelle Fleshman-Cross is the beleaguered Betty Jean, Karen Christensen is Suzy, Sarah Mack is Missy, and Lauren Marlowe Segal is Cindy Lou. Everybody else involved in the June production, including choreographer Tod A. Kubo and music director Ryan Stamey, returns to the scene of the triumph.
Choosing a Wonderettes spokesperson required some contemplation, but not much. Christensen has seniority with Ensley, dating back to Grey Gardens nearly three years ago, but Segal has seniority in Actor's Theatre holiday offerings, appearing as the only female in last year's Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas. What tips the balance decisively in Segal's favor is Cindy Lou's status as the Wonderettes' alpha baddie, whereas Christensen will be saddled with a pregnancy belly again, hopelessly wholesome by comparison.
"Cindy Lou isn't causing any problems for anybody!" Segal protests, defending the serial slut. Then the disclaimer: "She puts her opinions out there sometimes in an inappropriate way, but she's there because Betty Jean is her best friend, and she wants to support her even though she's not completely thrilled or sold on the whole event."
Segal follows this disclosure with an outrageous assertion that will be anathema to anyone who adores thinly cobbled jukebox musicals. Cindy Lou has depth!
"In the second act," Segal confides, "we get a little more of Cindy Lou's past. She never really celebrated Christmas, since her family went through rough times. Christmas brings back some sad memories for her, and she tries to cover that up and keep this tough exterior. Within all the cheese and the corniness, you get a moment of reality and an insight into why she's put up all these walls to protect herself from being hurt."
Now if all this sounds a bit ominous, rest assured that Cindy Lou won't be coming too close to God. As for the audience, that is an entirely different proposition.
At this Holiday Happening, we are the Harper's Hardware employees that Wonderettes are singing for. Singing and/or dancing will be compulsory at some point, Segal insists, plus one special instance of audience participation and torment that Cindy Lou was hesitant to address, since it opens up an old wound that we first glimpsed in The Marvelous Wonderettes. Poor Missy was still carrying a torch for her Phys. Ed. teacher from the thrilling days of yesteryear.
Segal is almost whispering when I bring up the possibility of repeat audience harassment. "Gosh, I don't know if I can give that away. I will say that Mr. Lee makes an appearance, and once again, he will not know what's coming!"
He and again may not be the most accurate words for Segal to use, since Mr. Lee is a new audience member every night. Mr. Lee almost invariably creates the giddiest moments of the evening — as unpredictable for the well-rehearsed Wonderettes as they are for the victim du jour.
"Marvelous Wonderettes was the first time any of us really had to deal with audience participation on that level. Because they really don't know what to expect, and we are actually incorporating them into a number during which we have choreography. It can become pretty interesting."
The two most predictable songs on the songlist are "Winter Wonderland" and, since the Wonderettes already dredged up The Chordettes back in the 50s, Amy Grant's "Mister Santa." What lies between those titles, which bookend the 24-tune list, form a fairly global cavalcade of mostly Christmas and holiday fare, including one Hawaiian entry and, inexplicably, a German ditty sung to this reporter.
It's a fairly eclectic mix of songs, both strange and familiar, that consistently lie on the outskirts of religion and solemnity. But there's room amid the comical, whimsical, and upbeat for occasional oases of beauty. The one song Segal is telling us to look out for is "Snowfall."
"It's one of the most beautiful songs in the show, with this amazing tight harmony."
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