Winter Wonderettes (Review)

ETC celebrates Christmas in June and July with a cool show

Critic's Pick

Although Cincinnati’s theater scene offers lots of fine work from September through May, the pickings are usually thin during the summer. So it’s great that Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is offering the regional premiere of a holiday-themed musical Winter Wonderettes when the theater is typically dark. The sequel to The Marvelous Wonderettes, ETC’s 2010 box-office bonanza, opened to a full house and seems likely to be another hit.

Winter Wonderettes picks up a few months after the Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Suzy and Missy reprised their 1958 prom appearance with a 1968 return concert. As the Marvelous Wonderettes, they had charmed everyone a decade earlier, but post-graduation they went down some divergent paths. Despite a few moments of friction, they remained BFFs (best friends forever).

So now it’s time for the in 1968 holidays, and Betty Jean, now in “corporate sales” for Harper’s Hardware, has talked Mr. Harper into hiring the Wonderettes to sing at the business’s holiday employee party. That means a new category of tunes — holiday numbers like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and “Santa Baby” as well some lesser known numbers that create more poignant moments about love and life. However pensive number, “Snowfall,” is too slow and dreary early in the first act, especially following a segment about cheerleading which, while funny, has nothing to do with the holidays. But things get back on track quickly.

ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers has a deft touch staging this kind of loving humor, with an undercurrent of anxiety inherent in the holidays. Winter Wonderettes is made all the better because Meyers has reassembled her entire 2010 cast. Mia Gentile remains the ebullient Missy wearing cat’s-eye glasses, full of clever ideas for musical numbers and crafty designs for costumes, and Brooke Rucidlo recreates the spacey Suzy, pregnant again, wide-eyed and at least two beats behind her friends. Sara Mackie’s distracted and sometimes jealous Betty Jean and Denise Devlin’s disdainful but good-hearted Cindy Lou show a bit more wear and tear, since they’re still seeking happiness in love. The contrast between the four — upbeat Missy and Suzy, wary Denise and angry Betty Jean — makes for a lot of the show’s humor.

The four talented actresses sing and dance up a winter snowstorm, delivering a blizzard of laughs. Rucidlo is a ditzy delight with a babyish voice and zany, Lucille Ball-like physical antics (pay attention to “Suzy Snowflake,” — tap, tap, tapping), while Gentile shows off both comedic talent and vocal skill (especially in a featured number, “This Christmas (Hang All The Mistletoe)”). Devlin warms things up with a sexy “Santa Do the Mambo” and the touching “All Those Christmas Clichés.” Mackie shows the broadest range, singing the heartfelt “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” and the hopeful “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” to an audience member chosen to be “Bob” from the store’s plumbing department. Frequent ETC music director Scot Woolley prepped the quartet (they perform to a recorded soundtrack) and choreographer Patti James got them moving.

Brian c. Mehring’s fantasy hardware-store set has lots of holiday details — illuminated Santas, plastic candles, tinsel, a fake fireplace and a pink Christmas tree — provided by properties master Shannon Rae Lutz. During an opening medley, the Wonderettes decorate the store in red and blue (keeping in mind “our friends of the Jewish persuasion,” Suzy says), and when strings of lights are illuminated overhead, despite what the calendar might indicate, you’ll feel the holiday spirit. If you’re overheated during June and July, I suggest you stop by ETC where it’s cool — in every sense of the word.

WINTER WONDERETTES, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through July 24.  Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.