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Review - The Marvelous Wonderettes & Beast

There's an interesting point buried beneath the innocuous entertainment of writer/director Roger Bean's The Marvelous Wonderettes, a somewhat cute little show utilizing girl group and female soloist pop hits from the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, that interesting point could have easily been made with out the tedium of his vapid, unfunny book and standard story. But if you can disregard everything that happens between the songs and just enjoy the singing talents of Farah Alvin (the shy, geeky one), Beth Malone (the trouble-maker), Bets Malone (the air-headed, helium voiced blonde) and Victoria Matlock (Most Likely To Become Ann-Margret) you're apt to have an enjoyable time.

See, when we first meet the quartet of 1958 high school seniors who entertain on prom night with tunes like "Mr. Sandman," "Lollipop" and "Sincerely," the bright-eyed, fresh-faced teens awkwardly trying to execute Janet Miller's synchronized choreography might pass for the abstinence ring wearing steadies of those Forever Plaid fellas. Oh, they have their little spats involving boyfriends, spotlight-hogging and, most importantly, who gets to be prom queen, but on the whole their lives are sweet, sincere and uncomplicated.

But ten years later, at their ultra-mod high school reunion, it seems the 60s have added layers of disillusion, irony and a gutsy independent streak, exemplified by selections like "You Don't Own Me," "Wedding Bell Blues" and, naturally, "Respect." This rapid growth in the maturity and complexity expressed by pop music's women in that explosive decade that heated up the feminist movement gives The Marvelous Wonderettes some legitimate spark. And Bean utilizes an effective formula in the second half by giving each Wonderette a trio of songs to perform in succession that, with the help of a minimal amount of connecting dialogue, gives a complete picture of what's happened to her in the ten years between acts. For example, Matlock lets loose with a lustful, "Son of a Preacher Man," when asked if there's been any special guy in her life. She explains how the relationship ended with "Leader of the Pack," and expresses her regret with "Maybe."

But while the concept, structure and musical material gives the project promise, Bean's sticky sweet and ruthlessly witless book keeps slowing down the proceedings. If the ladies are given one-note stereotypes to play all night, at least they sound great under music director Brian William Baker, who wrote the arrangements with Bean. There's an unseen four piece band somewhere in the theatre playing Michael Borth's orchestrations.

Bobby Pearce's costumes are fabulous, going from bright, bouncy taffeta to matching sexy minis and go-go boots. And Michael Carnahan does a great job dressing up The Westside Theatre as a high school gym sporting colorful party decorations. Nostalgia trippers and moms and grandmas looking for some wholesome fun for theatre night with the 'tweens should find plenty to enjoy in The Marvelous Wonderettes. And with a little tinkering perhaps the rest of us would, too.

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Though playwright Michael Weller may have gotten his description of Beast as "a fever dream" from a Ray Bradbury story, his play about a horribly disfigured U.S. Iraqi war veteran trying to find his place back in America more closely resembles Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

In a German military hospital, Private First Class Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green) sits in mourning beside the casket of his brave buddy, Sergeant Benjamin Voychevsky (Corey Stoll). Jimmy lost an arm and has had skin grafted from his chest to fix disfigurement to his face. Voych, as Jimmy calls him, suffered the same wounds and worse when he threw himself in the line of ambush fire, his own gun taking as many as he can with him, in order to protect his men. The private is only momentarily surprised when his sergeant rises out of his box, apparently alive after all, and though Voych is somewhat confused about what has happened to him, he also knows it would take the army forever to sort out the paperwork needed to have a dead man declared alive again, so the two of them visit a shady captain, who sidelines in selling U.S. arms to Arabs, known for his ability to expedite such matters.

What follows is a sorta darkly comic, phantasmagoric, satirical buddy story - or a fever dream if you prefer - where Voych, whose mental scars match his physical ones stitch for stitch, reacquaints himself with the country he sacrificed nearly everything for, with the loyal and excitable Jimmy tagging along for the ride.

After an encounter with two blind prostitutes and a visit to his "widow's" home to consider letting her know the truth, Voych has an epiphany at Mt. Rushmore (humorously recreated by puppet designer Bob Flanagan) that takes him to a certain Texas ranch to visit a character referred to as "GW." There, the two veterans introduce the commander in chief to a plan they have which will end the war by ensuring that every American will have a constant reminder of its inevitable result. And as good soldiers, they're prepared to deal with his resistance.

Program notes tell us Weller began writing Beast last December and had a completed script by January. There is definitely an exciting sense of urgency to his text, which director Jo Bonney's accentuates with a production that attacks the senses. Sound designer/composer David Van Tieghem blasts pulsating music between scenes to accompany Tal Yarden's fast moving video montages of warfare and highways. Make-up and effects designer Nathan Johnson ups the discomfort level in creating the soldiers' wounds and lighting designer David Lander isn't shy about letting us see them.

Stoll gives a beautifully empathetic performance as the quiet center of the production's firestorm; trying his best to hide a fury that bursts out when provoked. Marshall-Green is also excellent as the young vet living in an arrested adolescence and who knows nothing more of life than to party hard and follow the orders of his superior. Dan Butler makes a terrific impression as the cynically charming but truly threatening war profiteer, but lacks texture as GW, not playing much more than a cowardly comic impersonation. Also memorable is Lisa Joyce as the prostitute who makes an emotional connection with Voych.

In the past eight years New York has seen an overload of plays, musical revues and performance pieces critical of President Bush; many of them filled with more anger than dramaturgy and wit. Beast, while not completely satisfying, still packs a wallop when it reminds us that a leader's legacy is not only what he or she achieves, but the price others pay to achieve it.


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From This Author Kristin Salaky