Who knows how director, Bets Malone, does it all. Not only has she just directed and choreographed an ebullient staging of Winter Wonderettes at the Welk Resorts Theatre, but she is currently featured in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at The Old Globe and recently starred in an impassioned production of Next to Normal at the North Park Theatre. The musical revue at the Resort is a nostalgic one for her, since she was in the original cast of the show that premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
The Wonderettes are a fictional female group who were introduced in the 1999 comedy, The Marvelous Wonderettes. During a Christmas party in 1968, goofy Missy Miller (Sarah Errington), tough Betty Jean Reynolds (Rae K. Hendersen), raunchy Cindy Lou Huffington (Kristen Lamoureux) and goodhearted Suzy Simpson (Noelle Marion) entertain fellow employees and family at a holiday party for Harper’s Hardware. Betty is in management at Harper’s and is going through a tough time, because of a recent breakup. In spite of her downbeat mood, her friends try to make Betty feel like her old self by getting into the holiday spirit.
While the celebration starts out with high cheer, the night slowly becomes a disaster. The Wonderettes try to figure out a way to maintain the positive energy of the partiers, even after a shocking bombshell is revealed.
A big part of the appeal of Winter Wonderettes is the harmony between the four performers. Their vocalizing on classic holiday songs such as “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” and “Winter Wonderland” is lovely and effervescent.
Helping with the yuletide sound is a quartet lead by music director, and pianist, Justin Gray. The musicians, which feature drums/percussionist, Mike Masessa, saxist, Matthew Best, and guitarist, Vince Cooper, collaborate on a variety of tunes effortlessly ranging from the R&B hit “This Christmas” to the jazzy “Santa Baby.”
The actresses also are equally adept at humor, using their contrasting personalities for laughs. No one hogs the spotlight, for each of them gets to say very funny quips written by Wonderettes’ creator, Roger Bean.
While a good portion of the gags are dialogue based, there is amusement found in offbeat visuals. Even Jennifer Edward’s lighting design is handled in a clever fashion.
The only joke that overstays its welcome is an extended sequence in Act I when the women try to honor the way Christmas is celebrated around the world. Though the scene starts out drolly enough, the gag goes on for a couple minutes too many. Events get back on track immediately after, and the rest of the narrative feels more focused and comical.
As a director, Malone maintains a highly exuberant tone throughout Winter Wonderettes. The atmosphere is created immediately during the introduction, when the group sings a well-known Noel rendition of “Mister Sandman” entitled “Mister Santa.”
Her choreography is full of moves that feel true to the 1960s. An impressive number is a tap dance Marion takes part in during “Suzy Snowflake.” Wearing a ridiculous costume provided by Steele Spring Stage Rights, her movement starts out as deliberately silly. However, Marion’s solo soon grows in quality and builds to a visually pleasing finish.
The action all takes place at Harper’s Hardware, which is fully realized by set designer, Doug Davis. He makes the store seem like an ordinary place that has been jubilantly decorated for the holidays and for the special event.
A word of caution for those going to see Winter Wonderettes. There is an interactive component to the show, especially during Act II. Several male theatre-goers are asked to participate with Missy, Betty, Cindy and Suzy in fun activities. On opening night, it was clear that the men who joined them were not actors, and were just randomly selected audience members. These particular segments in Act II work, because they add to the joyful festivities and are not embarrassing or mean-spirited.
Winter Wonderettes’ endlessly charming ensemble and sanguine music results in an endearing Xmas treat. The fact that Malone is simultaneously involved with two high quality stories focusing on December 25 this year is a quite a multi-tasking accomplishment.