Review: The Marvelous Wonderettes (Lower Ossington Theatre)

Lower Ossington Theatre gets packed with good vibes in this prom-themed Toronto production

The Marvelous Wonderettes, playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre, is packed full of songs, colour, feeling and good vibes. We visit a high school gymnasium on prom night, and our masters of ceremony are the school’s award-winning songleaders, a quartet of bright young women with their futures ahead of them—if they can keep from throttling each other first. Who’ll be elected Prom Queen? Who’ll end up with the playboy Johnny? Will Missy consummate her crush on a mystery man? And where will the world lead our heroines?

Luckily, the performers can definitely sing. The Wonderettes (played by Alexandra Reed, Rebecca Rodley, Carry Quigley and Stacey Joy) are all polished soloists who also demonstrate a special knack for era-appropriate background curlicues: the tight harmonies and “da-doo-sha-na-na”s are spot-on perfect. I’ll also admit to being a tremendous sucker for this kind of music. The girl groups of the 50s and 60s turned out some of my favourite songs, and it’s a wonderful treat to see them handled so well.

The major difficulty is that the audience can’t hear them. The Lower Ossington Theatre’s sound system was so spotty and unreliable on opening night that I started to wonder why stage management wasn’t stopping the show to fix it. On several occasions, microphones weren’t turned on, lead singers were drowned out by backups, backing tracks played over top of vocalists, microphones clicked or cracked, and one performer in particular was stuck with a microphone that would drop out every couple of seconds.

The cast made the most of the situation, and we are talking about a jukebox musical, so it isn’t a catastrophic loss: if you’ve made it to adulthood without ever hearing “Mr. Sandman”, “Son of a Preacher Man” or “Leader of the Pack”, you must have been living under a tremendous rock. We all know how these songs go, so we don’t lose all that much for failing to hear them for the n-th time.

But unfortunately, this show has other, rather gaping, flaws. Many of these songs, in their own eras, were vehicles for empowerment, a fact which seems to have been overlooked: for example, one of the greatest anthems of righteous, white-hot feminist anger—Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT”—is here repurposed by a woman tearfully begging her husband to take her back.

While the singing remains impressive, the arrangements of these songs are remarkably samey: the first act in particular might as well just be the same continuous track of vaguely up-tempo malt-shop boogie. This era had some wonderful variety to choose from: ballads, the Phil Spector wall of sound, sweeping orchestral numbers… but all we hear is the same type of music played in slightly different keys. This problem is solved by the second act, but I was still disappointed.

But I feel there’s a bigger, and worse, problem. This show, set in a high school gymnasium with tacky decorations, nervous singers, a teenager working the lights and a seat-of-your-pants mentality, is clearly meant to poke fun at the Eisenhower-era earnestness of the entire affair. The big, big problem is that instead of parody, the show often feels like imitation. The author has tried to create situations ripe with irony and camp, which are practically crying out for over-the-top winks and nudges, but which this production plays entirely straight. I got the impression that the cast and director may not be entirely in on all the author’s jokes.

This is a production which takes serious issues and situations—single parenthood, divorce, a love affair between a teacher and a student—and sands all the edges off. In this universe, the election of the Prom Queen really is the biggest event that these women will ever experience—and there’s not even the slightest effort to satirize or poke fun at this ludicrous state of affairs, even though I felt the author was clearly trying to tug the production in that direction.

The end result is, in my view, distinctly uncomfortable. The songs are still great, and the performers are talented, and there are some genuinely funny moments in the show. As a piece of pure, fluffy theatre, there’s a lot of virtue in this production, but it never rises above the level of a 1970s Variety Hour on television: a few jokes, a few songs you’ve heard before, some kooky hijinx, and that’s it.

There’s potential in this script, in these actors, and certainly in these songs. The fact that none of it coalesces is profoundly disappointing.


  •  The Marvelous Wonderettes plays through February 10th, 2013 at the Lower Ossington Theatre. (100A Ossington Ave, between Queen and Dundas.)
  • Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM.
  • All tickets are $49, and can be purchased online, by telephone (416 915-6747), or at the box office half an hour before the show begins.
  • Full bar service is available in the venue. 

Promotional image provided by the Lower Ossington Theatre.