Wonderettes lead marvelous BHP return

Ron Burtz

After last year’s COVID-19 blackout, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” which opened Friday night, was the perfect show to launch the return of the Black Hills Playhouse (BHP) for its diamond jubilee season. The feel-good nostalgic music and plenty of laugh-out-loud comedy was just the right mix for the theater’s—and the nation’s—much-needed return to live entertainment. There is much to say about this delightful production, but first let’s talk about the changes made at the Playhouse itself for this unique restart season.
The 2020 season was cancelled early last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about packing patrons and actors into the close confines of the historic Custer State Park theatre. With the virus continuing to be a concern last fall, a decision had to be made at that time for bringing back the Playhouse summer 2021.
Due to the uncertainty, it was decided in October to construct an outdoor stage using one of the buildings on the BHP campus as a backdrop. The stage which occupies an area between the theatre building and Grace Coolidge Creek was conceived as a way to bring back performances while still keeping audiences and performers from breathing the same recycled air.
On Friday night, the open-air stage was officially dubbed the New Frontier Theatre in honor of the Playhouse’s original performing space. From 1947-50 the BHP performed in a tent near Legion Lake which was called the Frontier Theatre.
The stage boasts plenty of performing space and lights and loudspeakers are hung on large wooden poles nearby. While the lights only come into play during Act 2 at this point in the season due to the lateness of sunset, the sound is a vast improvement over the inside of the theatre with clear, crisp audio and zero vocal dropouts or interference. The music from the pit band, situated in a tent left of the stage, was so rich that at first I thought the actors were performing to a studio-recorded sound track.
Seating is on steel folding chairs borrowed from Custer School District, so in addition to the usual advice of making sure you have a jacket for the Black Hills after-sundown chill, I strongly advise taking a chair pad or, better yet, your own comfy lawn chair.  
Moving this year’s shows outdoors was the right decision. With their cool, calm and mostly insect-free evenings, the Black Hills were made for outdoor theatre and the folks at BHP have created the perfect setting.
Another change made this season was smaller cast sizes, which meant four talented actresses had to carry an entire two-hour musical revue of singing, dancing and slapstick humor by themselves. And how did they do? In a word: “marvelous!”
“The Marvelous Wonderettes” are four high school girls performing for their senior prom at Springfield High School (Go Chipmunks!) in 1958. From cat eye glasses to crinoline petticoats, the girls are a perfect portrait of 1950s Americana and their musical performances were...well...”Wonderette-ful!”
Led by BHP veteran Josie Miller as Betty Jean (B.J.), the cast consists of Playhouse newcomers Lydia Prior (Missy), Ceslie Parker-Waller (Cindy Lou) and Elizabeth Balzli as the ditzy blonde (of course!) Suzy.
The first act of the show, written and created by Roger Bean, is a joyous romp down memory lane featuring such ’50s hits as “Mr. Sandman,” “Lolli-pop,” the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do is Dream” and “Stupid Cupid.”
Miller, with her powerful singing voice and zany facial expressions, is at her scene-stealing best in this production and her ongoing teenage rivalry with Cindy Lou over boyfriend “Johnny” followed by “best friends forever” making up is fodder for several hilarious moments.
Prior, as the bespectacled Missy, is brilliant and her emotional rendition of “Secret Love” in Act 1 gave me chills as her lovely contralto voice soared to the treetops.  
Balzli was perfect in the role of the vacant, bubblegum-chomping Missy. Her speaking voice is the kind of squeaky sing-song you would expect from this character, but when she puts her bubblegum on top of the mic (Really!) and starts to sing, amazing things happen! The incredible range demonstrated in her performance of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. in Act 2 is a force of nature. (I also must mention that her rendition of the classic Lucille Ball ugly cry at one point is a thing of beauty!)
As B.J.’s rival Cindy Lou, Parker-Waller gave a superb performance as well. Her voice was a perfect match for the rest of the quartet and the group’s tight harmonies are on par with classic ’50s girl bands like “The Marvelettes.”
Act 2 transports the audience a decade into the future for the girls’ 10-year class reunion in 1968 back at good ol’ Springfield High (Go Chipmunks!) Having updated their hairdos and trading in their matching pumps in for white go-go boots, the Wonderettes are reunited on stage after a long hiatus.
The years have brought about changes in relationships and a maturity that provide lots of emotional energy for performing the grittier teen angst music of the ’60s. Early in the act the cast gives a dynamic performance of “Wedding Bells Blues” and continues to amaze through songs like “You Don’t Own Me,” “It’s My Party” and “Leader of the Pack” with absolutely no lag in energy or intensity.
If you grew up listening to these songs on the radio you’ll be tempted to sing along and at one point I heard a voice harmonizing from my right and looked over to see it was my smiling wife. That’s the magic of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”

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