Oak Park's Open Door Theater offers a 'Marvelous' midwinter escape

A charming musical in 4-part harmony

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By Doug Deuchler

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If you're looking for a night out that is pure escapism, The Marvelous Wonderettes at Open Door Theater is the ticket. It's a charming little musical, fun for all ages, but it is especially a good time if you are old enough to remember the mostly doo-wop classics that are sung in four-part harmony by the adorable all-girl quartet of the title. 

The show is a lightly-plotted journey through a decade full of hopes and dreams and change. This is no musical biography like The Jersey Boys. It's what they started calling a "jukebox musical" a few years ago when shows like Forever Plaid and Smokey Joe's Cafe were big hits. It follows a delightfully contrived storyline that weaves together 30 or so unrelated jukebox hits of the '50s and '60s.

The Marvelous Wonderettes, a trophy-winning songleader squad, are a last minute replacement act at their own 1958 senior prom when the scheduled male performers, The Crooning Crabcakes, are abruptly cancelled. One of the key "crabs" has gotten suspended for smoking behind the girls' locker room. 

Director and choreographer Ashton Byrum stages this show with exuberance and joy. There are some nifty dance moves and each of the performers provides lots of funny business to really sell the numbers.

The first act, set in 1958, is full of infectious innocence and giddy first love. There are songs like "Lollypop," "Lipstick On Your Collar," and "Stupid Cupid." Act 2 takes place in 1968 at their 10-year class reunion. Though some of their dreams have faded into heartache, the four young women are now more assertive and self-realized.

There's not a deep plot since everything takes place on stage during a performance. But this is not simply a musical revue, stringing together a slew of old songs. Each of the girls has a distinct personality and conflicts. 

The formidable foursome of singer-actresses are: Elya Bottiger as giggly, ditsy, gum-chewing Suzy; Sarah Conrad as sultry but unlucky-in-love Betty Jean; Lauren Kerbs as vain, flirty Cindy Lou; and Molly Kral as shy, earnest Missy who has a big-time crush on one of her teachers. Each performer gets plenty of individual focus and solo moments. These sassy singers nail the tight harmonies and all remain on stage throughout the entire show.

The names of unseen male characters are often the ones provided within the song lyrics, which makes it fun to see how the book's creator, Roger Bean, weaves the music into his light plot. At times the girls have conflicts among themselves. Betty Jean and Cindy Lou are often fighting over a boy.

Most of the songs are iconic hits of their era but some numbers are less well remembered. "Secret Love," for instance, was a ballad made famous by Doris Day. "Sincerely" was sung by the McGuire Sisters.

When I realized the show would be using canned music instead of a pit band, I initially feared this might sound like a karaoke machine. But like one of those big old vintage jukeboxes, it works really well.

Though the second act is set in 1968, the music often is drawn from the early '60s, such as "It's My Party," "The Shoop-Shoop Song," and "Leader of the Pack." There's not really much contrast between the wholesome '50s and the heavier mood of a decade down the road. The upheaval of the later era — such as the burning cities, the protest movement, the assassinations, the heating up of the Vietnam War — are never mentioned. 

This invigorating show is not exactly a true time capsule: no Beatles, no Bob Dylan, little or no Motown, no Rolling Stones. Undoubtedly the royalties are too prohibitive.

Patti Roeder's costumes are colorful and detailed. They're campy and cute, adding a lot to the characters. 

Dustin Pettegrew is the scenic designer. He created a corner of the gymnasium where the prom is being held. It's a great set with blonde bricks and the Boys and Girls lavatories on either side. The platform stage used for the quartet is in the center.

The musical director is Ilana M. Atkins. Alison Ennis is the stage manager. 

Paul Amandes provides the voice of the high school principal, barking announcements over the loud speakers. 

The Marvelous Wonderettes played off Broadway in 2008. It's a perfect mid-winter show and especially works well in Open Door's very intimate performance space. 

It's a family-friendly musical full of energy and providing plenty of laughs. This old boomer had a great time.

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