CEDAR CITY — It was during a quick visit home to see his mom that writer Roger Bean had a moment of inspiration.
"My mom and I were just going down memory lane and she opened up her yearbook, which I had never seen before,” Bean said. “She graduated in the late ’50s and was a song-leader. And I thought it was so interesting as she explained the difference between a song-leader and cheerleader.”
Hence, "The Marvelous Wonderettes" was born.
Dubbed a "bubblegum musical," the frothy musical comedy is, for all intents and purposes, a musical walk down memory lane and one of the offerings this fall at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Lights are up in a high school gym in 1958 as the Wonderettes get ready to sing for the high school prom. With boy troubles, tension among the group members and a crush on a teacher (or two), the quartet croons its way through classic tunes that you can't help but recognize: "Lollipop," "Mr. Sandman," "Lipstick on Your Collar," "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me," to name a few.
The musical journey picks up in Act II when the girls return for their 10-year high school reunion; a fun chance to see where they went after graduation.
"Heat Wave," "It's In His Kiss," "Respect" and "Rescue Me" are just a few of the big hits from the 1960s.
“When I first started writing it, it was before iTunes,” Bean joked. “I actually had to plow through tons and tons of CDs, going through old music, playing and singing and I would listen over and over.”
“It’s kind of the soundtrack to our lives,” said Bets Malone, a member of the original cast and the choreographer for Utah Shakespeare Festival. “Even if you didn’t grow up in a house where music was really dominant, there’s no way your family didn’t have a collection of these songs somewhere.”
Malone, a longtime friend of Bean’s, played Suzy in the original cast and has since played the role in numerous other productions around the country. “I never get tired of it — it’s such a gift to do the show,” she said. “You walk on stage and the second you start singing the audience is beaming and bobbing their heads to the music. And you don’t really have theater that makes people do that anymore.”
Both Bean and Malone are in Cedar City to work on the Utah Shakespeare Festival production, and in an example of life imitating art, it’s a bit of a homecoming for them. “I met Bets here in Cedar; she went to school and I worked full time for the festival. We’d always kept in touch and now we’re inseparable best friends — it’s been so fun to come back. This is really where our friendship started,” Bean said.
“I walked around the campus and I thought it would be bittersweet,” Malone said. “It feels like walking on a movie set — so much has changed and so much is frozen in time and it’s exactly how I remember it. We’re just having a great time.”
Which sounds a lot like the musical itself. “People have nostalgia hit them — not only people who lived through the era, but for the younger people in the audience as well,” Bean said.
“It’s a hallmark of Americana,” Malone said. “It’s a love letter to that era and to a simple time before we were all so distracted by e-mail and tweets. It’s a love letter to a time when the most important thing was the high school prom, devastating fights with your best friend and your first kiss.”
And, younger audience members will enjoy picking the prom queen.
“The Marvelous Wonderettes” runs in repertory with “Richard II” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.”