Let’s get one thing straight. While there’s plenty of taffeta, high-energy pop hits from 50 years ago, four-part harmony and corny jokes to be had in the “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” the new musical going up this week at the Penobscot Theatre, there’s one thing that you won’t get any of. Plaid — the pattern or the show — the Wonderettes are not.
“It would be easy to make that comparison, yes,” said Nathan Halvorson, interim artistic director at PTC and the director and choreographer of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” “But I think there’s a lot more depth of character and fleshed-out plot in this show than in [“Forever Plaid”]. I think there’s a lot more substance to the story. I think it’s clear from the beginning that this is a different kind of show.”
The other big difference? Well, where the lads in Plaid are as dead as four tuxedo-wearing doorknobs, the ladies of “Wonderettes” are vibrantly alive women of a specific time and age. They’re from 1958 and 1968, to be exact, during their senior prom at Springfield High and then during their 10-year high school reunion. The show spans a much larger array of music than “Plaid.” Where that show was set squarely in the mid-to-late 1950s, “Wonderettes” starts in that era and then goes straight to the late 1960s. In other words, it goes from Doris Day to Dusty Springfield.
“I think that generational span is what gives the show some of its depth. These women age and change with the music,” said Halvorson. “It’s very funny, but it’s also a very good story. And the music is just fabulous. You sit down, and you say ‘Damn, those girls can sing.’”
At the beginning of the show, Betty Jean, Cindy Lou (Melissa Hammans and Sara Dobrinich, both of New York City), Missy and Suzy (Christie Robinson and Brianne Beck, Bangor-based PTC regulars) are called in at the last minute to take the place of the prom’s original performers, male singing group the Croonin’ Crabcakes. The Wonderettes go through a jukebox’s worth of 50’s female-sung pop songs such as “Mr. Sandman” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” The second act meets up with the Wonderettes ten years later and catches up with the girls after years of relationship troubles, where songs like “Respect” and “Son of a Preacher Man” make a lot more sense.
Hammans, Dobrinich, Robinson and Beck have spent weeks training their voices under the guidance of music director Will Schuler. They’ve also taken a good, long look at their characters, which range from the somewhat uptight Missy and ditzy Suzy to the laid-back, good-humored Better Jean and vulnerable, sensitive Cindy Lou. All four are decked out in cute-as-a-button ’50s-style dresses, as well as hip, stylish ’60s duds created by costume designer Anna-Marlies Hunter.
“They all have their own sets of motivations and ambitions,” said Hammans. “I think, under the surface, the show really deals with female friendship and that dynamic. It’s about some really awesome women.”
For the fourth year in a row, PTC is taking part in Free Night of Theater, a national initiative of Theatre Communications Group designed to introduce live theater to new audiences. PTC will give away 200 tickets to “The Marvelous Wonderettes” for first-time theater attendees during the first week of performances. The first 100 people to sign up will receive two complimentary tickets. Tickets will become available at noon Monday, October 24, on the PTC website at penobscottheatre.org. For information regarding Free Night of Theater, visit freenightoftheater.net.
Performances of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” are set for 7 p.m. Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 2-3 and 9-10; 8 p.m. Oct. 28, Nov. 4-5 and 11-12; 3 p.m. Oct. 30 and Nov. 6 and 13; 5 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are $20-$35.