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A pastel-colored dream come true

For its devoted fans, 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' is more than just a musical. Now the '50s revue is on its way to New York.

July 31, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Pinkie-swear it's true: "The Marvelous Wonderettes" -- a modest jukebox musical about a high school girl group that has been taking audiences back to 1958 and prom night for more than 10 months at North Hollywood's El Portal Forum Theatre -- will have its first off-Broadway production in the fall.

News that "Wonderettes" is going from NoHo to New York is dreamy enough to make the show's ever-widening circle of fans -- call them the Wonderette-ettes -- just swallow their bubble gum. That group includes Kathy White, 57, of Irvine, who has seen the show "15 or 16 times" since it opened in October, often with friends in tow.

"I have seen a lot of theater, but there is something truly magical about this," White says of watching four powerhouse singers in pastel chiffon shoop-shoop their way through such golden oldies as "Mr. Sandman" and "Dream Lover" in the intimate 95-seat performance space.

"The last time I was there, I saw a guy that was probably 80 years old, grinning his head off, singing along to 'Lollipop,' " White says. "Then there was one time that this older gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Who's the doll in the green?' "

Then there's 71-year-old Steve Jacobson of West Los Angeles, one of the owners of a large maintenance company, who has seen "Wonderettes" five times; has brought, at last count, 84 of his closest friends "and paid for most of them"; and frankly believes you should enjoy this show whether you like it or not.

"I think that this is a show everyone in America should be forced to see," Jacobson says -- from the tone of his voice, only half-joking. "I like plays that do not make me feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They were good times, the Eisenhower years. It's the best show I've ever seen, and I've seen Olivier, Ustinov, Alec Guinness." This astonishing comparison makes one wonder whether Jacobson saw these celebrated actors onstage or just happened to run into them.

Patrick Keller, 42, of Anaheim, has seen the show 10 times and counting. He's also had his photo taken backstage with the "girls" -- twice -- and even showed up one night wearing a T-shirt he'd had made with an image from the show's website. "I love that era; I always say I was born in the wrong year," Keller says.

The success of "Wonderettes," first performed more than eight years ago as a one-act show at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, is music to the ears of the show's author and director, Roger Bean, as well as to producers David Elzer and Peter Schneider.

The show's producers hope that all members of the cast from the El Portal -- Kirsten Chandler, Kim Huber, Julie Dixon Jackson and Bets Malone -- will be moving east to open the show in an off-Broadway theater of about 200 seats, yet-to-be determined, sometime in the fall.

Malone, 35, who plays Suzy, says her involvement with "The Marvelous Wonderettes" dates back to that first one-act performance in Milwaukee in 1998; Malone was also on board when the expanded show came to the Hermosa Beach Playhouse in 2003, before a legal hassle with a potential commercial producer put "Wonderettes" in limbo for several years.

"I think the key to the success of this particular show is the demographic of your average theater ticket buyer -- they went to high school when these girls did," Malone says. "It's a trip down memory lane."

In a sentiment echoed by the show's fans, Malone adds that you don't have to have lived through the '50s to be nostalgic for what the decade represents. "Growing up in the 1970s, I watched '50s-era movies -- for me, it's kind of like living out a little dream of being all those girls that I saw in the movies," Malone says.

Bean has written 10 jukebox musicals commissioned and produced by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. His shows include "Don't Touch That Dial!," "The Andrews Brothers" and "The Winter Wonderettes."

Though not yet born in 1958, Bean, 45, says he was inspired to write the story of this girl group by his mother, Lois, who was a song leader at Lynwood High School in suburban Los Angeles.

Bean has dedicated the show to his mother and borrows an old photo of Lois Bean's singing group to stand for Springfield High's Song Leaders in the program. He also borrows her maiden name for the Springfield High principal, Mr. Varney. Although Lois Bean died three years ago, some of her singing group members have come to the show at the El Portal.

"I always think it was such an innocent time, certainly in musical terms," Bean said in a recent interview in the El Portal lobby, appropriately prom-decorated with crepe paper streamers and red and pink hearts.

"Wonderettes" transports viewers "back to an easier time, before Vietnam, which was a real turning point in America," Bean continued.

He doesn't mind that the show is frequently dubbed "the female 'Forever Plaid,' " a reference to the musical revue about four young male singers killed in a car crash in the 1950s.

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