“If something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” proclaims one of the spunky gals in the current iteration of The Marvelous Wonderettes at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati this month. ETC apparently agrees, since this is the fourth consecutive year it has staged one of Roger Bean’s retro shows featuring music from the ’50s and ’60s. The initial show introduced a girl group pulled together for Springfield High’s 1958 senior prom to replace the Crooning Crabcakes, boys whose bad behavior lost them the gig. Its second act fast-forwarded to 1968 for a glimpse of the Wonderettes’ futures — as well tunes from another era of Pop music.
ETC’s production of The Marvelous Wonderettes in 2010 stands as the best-selling show in the company’s history. That success enticed them to stage Bean’s several sequels for more big-time ticket sales. ETC offered Winter Wonderettes in the summer of 2011. In 2012, it was Life Could Be a Dream, a 1960 parallel tale of the Crabcakes entering a contest for a recording contract. Currently, ETC is presenting The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns. Act I (“Caps”) is set on graduation day in 1958, while Act II (“Gowns”) jumps to the summer of 1968 for the wedding reception of one of the girls to a teacher she once idolized.
These shows definitely have a local following: ETC announced Caps and Gowns for May 1-19, but even before it opened, ticket sales prompted an extension to June 1. So it’s no wonder ETC loves the Wonderettes. These lucrative shows are onstage for the same reason the Cincinnati Playhouse presents A Christmas Carol annually: They crank up income to support more ambitious productions.
ETC touts itself as “your premiere theatre,” with a long record of ambitious, challenging, often provocative new works.
Admittedly, each of Bean’s musicals has been a local premiere. But despite their popularity, they depend on predictable formulas and familiar tunes. If you’ve seen one, you know what to expect.
That said, Director Lynn Meyers makes us care about the girls, bringing back Denise Devlin as seductive Cindy Lou, Sara Mackie (competitive, grouchy Betty Jean) and Brook Rucidlo Steele (spacey Suzy). New this time is Leslie Goddard (Missy), a petite stick of dynamite in cat’s-eye glasses who steals the second act with several steamy numbers that run counter to her prissy exterior. Rucidlo Steele shows her chops (and her vocal range) with a rendition of “Good Lovin’ ” that blends Suzy’s cloying innocence with some unexpected gutsy power. The Wonderettes are fun, but it’s time for ETC to move on.
Perhaps to reassure serious theatergoers, just before opening Caps and Gowns, Meyers announced four shows for ETC’s 2013-2014 season, starting with Jon Robin Baitz’s searing comedy, Other Desert Cities, in September. When a once-promising novelist returns home to Palm Springs to visit her parents, conflict ensues when she reveals she’s been writing a juicy, tell-all memoir focusing on the tragic death of her anti-war activist brother. The show was a Pulitzer Prize finalist a year ago, and The New York Times called it “the best new play on Broadway.”
Up next will be another Pulitzer finalist, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn in October. It’s a social comedy about a rising young academic who’s not at all certain that she’s leading the life she wants. An evening with a friend who’s a stay-at-home mom leads to an interesting game of musical chairs. Gionfriddo’s writing credits include the recent Netflix series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey.
In December ETC will revive Around the World in 80 Days from 1999, one of its first holiday musicals created by local writer Joe McDonough and composer David Kisor. It’s a family-friendly show based on Jules Verne’s classic novel about a crazed circumnavigation of the globe in 1899 by wealthy adventurer Phileas Fogg, who wagers his fortune that he can accomplish it in record time. Along the way, he must overcome bandits, buffalo, winter storms and more.
Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop fills a slot in March-April 2014. It’s an imagined conversation between Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a feisty maid in a lonely Memphis hotel room the evening after one of his greatest speeches. The next day, tragedy will strike. (Shows for February and May 2014 are still being negotiated).
There’s nothing formulaic about these plays. I’m glad the Wonderettes have made it possible for ETC to bring us truly great new works. So tell your friends to have a ball at ETC before June 1 — they’ll be funding serious theater yet to come.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org