Back in 1975 when the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre was founded, songs like “It’s My Party,” “Dream Lover” and “Lollipop” had already achieved classic status. Over the subsequent four-plus decades, those and additional hits from the 1950s and ’60s have remained in steady rotation, as have productions by the professional theater company.
In residence at the Owen Theatre on the Mars Hill University campus, SART unites those histories on Thursday, March 7, when it opens its 45th season with The Marvelous Wonderettes, a show that celebrates the aforementioned pop standbys and others. Created, written and originally directed by Roger Bean, the off-Broadway musical is SART’s first spring production and heralds the company’s expansion toward producing shows throughout the year instead of merely in the summer.
“We chose The Marvelous Wonderettes for its joyous familiar music and the ability to look back at an era of music that celebrated the strong vocal stylings of the all-female girl groups,” says Amanda Sayles, SART’s producing artistic director. “We are so excited to bring this moving story and thrilling music to our WNC audiences.”
The narrative foundation for this hit parade is the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where the titular quartet of Betty Jean (Shannon Dionne), Cindy Lou (Kathleen Watson), Missy (Chelsey Mirheli) and Suzy (Natalie Brouwer Wilson) are introduced. The show’s second act brings the Wonderettes back together for a performance at their 10-year class reunion, where the interim ups and downs they’ve endured are revealed.
Once SART decided to produce The Marvelous Wonderettes, Sayles, who doubles as the show’s director, says Dionne, Watson, Mirheli and Brouwer Wilson immediately came to mind.
“These four women are vocal powerhouses,” she says. “Among [them], there are national tours of Mamma Mia!, Next to Normal and Jekyll & Hyde, international tours of Hair and Hairspray, backup singers for Dolly Parton and numerous regional theater productions.”
Such a high degree of talent is necessary to pull off the show’s nearly 30 songs, most which are performed in their entirety, including “Mr. Sandman,” “Leader of the Pack” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” Others are folded into medleys, such as one sung by Brouwer Wilson’s Suzy that contains “Respect,” “Maybe I Know,” “Rescue Me” and “Needle in a Haystack.”
“There are so many wonderful songs in this show — some that are playful and full of joy, others big and full of drama,” Sayles says. “The intricate, tight harmonies of the 1950s dovetail together so sweetly, and the songs of 1960s have such power and emotion it’s hard to have a favorite.”
Pressed to identify a personal standout, the director says she’ll “cheat a little, and pick one from each decade.” She opts for “Allegheny Moon,” which she calls “stunningly beautiful” and one where “the cast sounds like Disney princesses,” though she also “love[s] the vocal power you get to hear in ‘Heatwave.’”
True to ’50s doo-wop style, many of the numbers are performed a cappella. In cases where vocals are accompanied by outside instrumentation, Sayles notes that SART will employ a synthesizer, somewhat due to budgetary constraints, but primarily to better feature the cast’s gifted singers.
“We also had the idea that the person playing for the prom and reunion would have been their high school music teacher, who will be visible on the stage as part of the show,” Sayles says. “We have two incredible music directors who have spent countless hours perfecting the music. Stephen Purdy worked with the cast throughout rehearsals, and Brad Curtioff also helped during the rehearsal process and is playing for the show.”
In another effort to separate its production from others and to pay homage to the original constructs of all-women groups like The Shirelles, SART opted to cast the African-American performer Dionne in the role of Betty Jean. Period accuracy likewise extends to the transportive set and lighting design, as well as the costumes and dance moves.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes is all about the music, the movement and the environment,” Sayles says. “In our production, we are giving equal time in rehearsal to focus on the music and the choreography. Each number has its own style that comes from the specific movements that our brilliant choreographer, Rebecca O’Quinn, has crafted together.”
All of these elements must, of course, mesh to result in a successful show, and with the bevy of cherished songs attracting oldies-loving audiences, Sayles is confident that the assembled artistry will be what sets SART’s take apart.
“These four women are virtuoso singers, actors and dancers,” she says. “The sound is Broadway-level quality, and they each bring deep characters to the forefront of the show. It is truly a magical, transformative experience to hear and see these talented ladies on the stage.”
WHAT: The Marvelous Wonderettes
WHERE: Owen Theatre, 44 College St., Mars Hill, sartplays.com
WHEN: March 7-17, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $18-34