REVIEW: Revived Fort Salem Theater Moves Strongly Forward with “Marvelous Wonderettes” Look Back

SALEM — There is a party atmosphere as soon as you turn down East Broadway in Salem where women in pretty dresses are congregated in front of the columned theater which we have not visited in five years. The lobby is buzzing, everyone has their best masks on and the curtain speech is greeted with whoops and sustained applause. There was a festive, community excitement. Fort Salem Theater is under new management and “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is the premiere production at the refurbished, revitalized theater.

The party atmosphere is carried into the first act of the musical where the Wonderettes are tapped to provide the entertainment for the 1958 prom. I didn’t catch the name of the high school and some specific details were lost in the high spirits of the frenzied first act. “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” written and created by Roger Bean, is a jukebox musical that creates a framework story of a high school prom in the first act and a 10-year reunion in the second to hang a couple of dozen ’50s and ’60s girl group songs on.

As a showcase for four singing actresses, Fort Salem did an excellent job casting its Wonderettes. Betty Jean is played by Heather Hayes, Cindy Lou by Iris Rogers, Missy by Jenna Wilkenson and Suzy by Kallie Ann Tarkleson.

Highlights of the first act include the opener “Mr. Sandman” and Missy’s “Secret Love.” The row of girls in front of us loved “Stupid Cupid” and “Lucky Lips.” The script squeezes the most it can out of the high school setting with a “stop, drop and roll,” comebacks like “take a long walk off a short pier,” a vote for prom queen and even a juvenile love triangle between Cindy, Betty and an offstage Johnny. Much is made of a Mr. Lee, an audience member who is given the role of a teacher and has quite the character arc projected on him through the course of the evening. Other period songs that may plant themselves as ear worms were “Lollipop,” “Dream Lover” and “Sincerely.”

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Photo: Kyle West

Things settle down in the second act when we move forward 10 years to the 1968 reunion and the women all get their chance to shine in solo numbers. The ladies acquitted themselves well with the harmonies of the group numbers of the first act under the musical direction of John Norine Jr., but perhaps I just prefer the material of the second act which gave the women a stronger voice. It started with Missy, who may have had my favorite song of the night with “Wedding Bell Blues.” Jenna Wilkenson shined brightly in the second act with a new wig that helped you see her face better and a voice that rang pure and clear.

Betty Jean took the next trio of songs and the lovely Heather Hayes did a fine job with her songs of grievance as the rivalry between her and Cindy Lou boiled over. The conflict between the two was well acted and the Cindy Lou, of Iris Rogers, could have brought more bite to her rebelliousness in her singing of “Leader of the Pack” and “Son of a Preacher Man” because you know there’s more fire in her. She’s a striking figure onstage, compulsively watchable and present throughout.

I was riveted by Kallie Ann Tarkleson’s Suzy. From her amped up, sugar high, bubbly enthusiasm in Act I to her pregnant late entrance in Act II to “Heatwave,” I was sold on this character. Her energy, high spirits and heedless passion were a joy to watch all night long. When she turned plaintively at the close of the show to “Rescue Me” and misspelled “RESPECT,” it was damn funny and more than a little moving. So quick and spontaneous, she hardly seemed to be acting at all.

Director and choreographer Kyle West has done a superb job with casting and shaped strong performances with this light material. His girl group dance moves co-choreographed with Susi Thomas were fun to watch throughout. The cast enthusiastically executed them; they were fun, evocative and specific, never general. The costumes were more than attractive and appropriate for the two acts, taffeta then form fitting glitter. The set and lighting were serviceable and gave plenty of different looks as settings for the many different moods of the evening. Here’s hoping there will be live music in the future.

The musical is all harmless, silly fun, a nostalgia for a time that never was but as an excuse for a  party to reopen a theater it put a sturdy smile on our faces, filled us with warmth towards a great number of folks just over an hour from home and made us grateful for yet another superb theater in the Capital Region operating on a very high level right out of the gate. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is an evocation of the sweetest, good time you don’t even remember missing. Welcome Fort Salem Theater! Congratulations Jared and Kyle West! Huzzah!!

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