The women of Winter Wonderettes are clustered on sofas and cushy chairs in a corner of Musical Theatre West’s rehearsal space, a large room with walls lined by mirrors and past production posters. Julie Dixon Jackson is curled up in a ball on a couch, her entire body hidden beneath a black coat so all that’s visible is the top of her blonde head. The others, Misty Cotton, Bets Malone, and Lowe Taylor, all sit in varying degrees of comfort, legs tucked beneath them or hands cupped around mugs.
Each of these women are veteran actresses of the Roger Bean-penned musicals Winter Wonderettes and its mother show, Marvelous Wonderettes, both of which have been running in various venues across the country almost non-stop since their debuts.
Malone has been playing Suzy in productions of both shows since the Marvelous premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 2001. Jackson first appeared as Betty Jean in the long-running production of Marvelous Wonderettes at North Hollywood’s El Portal Forum Theatre in 2006-07. Cotton originated the role of Missy in Winter Wonderettes’ premiere in 2003 and later took on the same role at Laguna Playhouse alongside Jackson and Malone. Taylor is a special case, because she is the first actress to play every Wonderette. She came on as an understudy for all roles at the El Portal, and later went on to reprise roles in New York and LA. Now she wears Cindy Lou’s shoes.
Winter Wonderettes, now a seasonal favorite of musical theaters across the country, picks up where Cindy Lou, Missy, Suzy, and Betty Jean left off at the end of Marvelous Wonderettes. The story occurs at a Christmas party at Harper’s Hardware, where Betty Jean works. The four women put on a show for the party, all the while trying to sort through spats with husbands and a bit of in-fighting. Despite the tension, the characters ultimately care deeply for each other.
Just looking at the four women sitting close together and bantering, curled up as if in front of a fire, it is readily apparent how comfortable they feel with one another. Of their relationship as a group, Malone says, “It’s very easy and supportive. It feels like putting on a Snuggie and sitting in front of the television.”
After years of working together, the girls have become close. “We’re all very good friends outside of performing, so that’s a nice bonus,” Jackson says. “It’s nice having an excuse to hang out with friends and get paid for it.”
Cotton calls working with her costars a gift. “To be called up and asked to do a show with my friends and work with great writers””I love it,” she says.
When asked about pranks the friends have pulled over the years, Taylor takes no more than two seconds to think of an example.Â “I was going on for Bets as Suzy in North Hollywood. In Act Two of Marvelous Suzy is very pregnant,” she begins. Jackson realizes what story Taylor is referring to and starts to crack up. “Adjacent to our dressing room was the tech booth. I walked out totally in costume and I saw a gentleman running the booth who I had never seen before. He said “˜oh my goodness, are you pregnant?’ And I said yes. Then out runs Julie and she goes POW,” Taylor punches the air, “And punches me in the stomach! And the guy turned white.” At this point, everyone bursts into fits of laughter.
Malone follows up with a story about tricking Jackson during the Laguna Playhouse’s production of Winter Wonderettes. “There is a big scene where we decorate the store and the lights go up.” All the Christmas lights turn on at once, when Betty Jean plugs them in. “There’s this huge industrial plug she has to plug into a box. So we’re in tech and she couldn’t get it in the box. So I said, let me do it, and I pretended to get electrocuted. It scared the hell out of her. That was one of my favorite moments.”
Despite the camaraderie, being a Wonderette is not all fun and games. Winter features songs written with complex harmonies. One song, “Snowfall,” is so difficult that there is a note in the script suggesting it be cut if the cast can’t navigate the harmonies.
No one understands the difficulty better than Taylor, who has performed every part. “People think it’s so easy, but it’s incredibly hard. We’re here all day and then we go home and do homework all night,” she says. She describes the harmonies as a “puzzle,” the description of which is dizzying: “You know if you’re singing Missy you’re always on top. If you’re Betty Jean you’re on bottom. And then Suzy and Cindy Lou. So if Missy steps out, Cindy Lou is on top and Suzy is in the middle.” As she explains this, the others give her looks ranging from amazement to disbelief.
Due to the harmonic nature of the tunes, it is important that each co-star recognizes her role as a member of an ensemble; there is no room for the Wonderettes to behave like Dreamgirls.
Cotton explains, “You have to have four girls that are lead actresses willing to be in an ensemble. Everyone here is giving. No one is stealing focus.” This type of group work is why this particular ensemble works so well together.
Working with Roger Bean and Musical Theatre West
When the subject turns to Bean, who directs his own work, Malone dives right in. “Roger sees his shows and his characters as Looney Tunes. Sometimes you know what he really wants is for your head to spin around and for smoke to come out of your ears, but somehow you have to make that happen without being animated.” Her apt description earns appreciative claps from the others.
Taking a turn for the slightly more serious, Jackson explains the benefits of working with the show’s creator. “He has license to change whatever he wants whenever he wants, so if we say something funny and he likes it, it’s in.”
Malone jumps back in. “Sometimes you feel you are unheard in this business, so it’s really enlightening to be able to work with someone who is collaborative,” she says.
Malone has a very intimate relationship with Musical Theatre West, or rather, with its artistic director — Steve Glaudini, her husband. Clearly amused by her unique position, she says, “All in one I have slept with my leading man, my director, my producer, and my agent,” causing her friends to burst into laughter again. Glaudini has played all those roles at various points in Malone’s career.
Also conducive to the actresses’ creativity is MTW itself. All the actresses agree with Taylor when she says, “I love working here. Every time I’m here I feel like everyone is so on top of their game. It’s a great place to work.”
Cotton adds, “It’s going to be their 60th season next year. They’re doing something right. People should find out what that is and learn.”
Changes to the show
MTW’s production of Winter Wonderettes boasts a slew of changes and additions. One big change is new costumes designed by Tony-nominated costumer Bobby Pearce, withÂ Malone’s mother, Carlotta Malone, executing the designs.
Malone believes the changes are improvements. “I think they’re better than what’s been done with Winter before. We’ve always traditionally been in all blue, and Pearce has brought back jewel-toned winter versions of our original colors,” she explains. “I think it’s smart because the lights come up and immediately you know who everybody is without having to open our mouths.”
Also improved, she adds, are the sets. “For the first time I think we’re really going to look like we’re in a hardware store setting.”
Cotton is most excited about the live musicians, which the show has never had before. “It’s rock and roll, so having real guitar, bass is great,” she says. Malone adds that at the first rehearsal with the musicians, Cotton was so thrilled she cried.
Jackson is quick to point out that there have been plot changes as well, perhaps because they mostly affect her character. She explains that while the general plot and how the story begins and ends remain the same, “the way we get there is a bit different.”
Because the story is set at the store where Betty Jean works, Jackson has much of the dialogue. “So the brunt of all these new words has fallen on me, along with the new choreography, and it’s a tad overwhelming,” she says with a combination of a tired sigh and a giggle.
The MTW production also features all new choreography by John Vaughan.
What keeps them coming back?
Malone, Taylor, Cotton, and Jackson are all stars in their own right. All have performed as leads in many popular musicals over the years. What then, keeps them coming back to Wonderettes?
Taylor feels devoted to the show because it helped kick-start her career. “I got my Equity card from Marvelous. I’ve gotten to travel and have so many amazing experiences I never would have had without it.” As a result, she says, “I have a real sense of loyalty to Roger when it comes to the show.”
Cotton says simply, “They call and I’m glad that they do. I feel a sense of loyalty to the show.”
Jackson echoes her. “ I keep coming back to Wonderettes because my phone rings. If Roger is going to give me that opportunity again, I am happy to take it,” she says.
Malone laughs and says, “My agents keep asking why I keep going back to Wonderettes, and I just throw money at them and make them shut up. I think when I am quite old, I will look back and this will be my career show.” She adds, half jokingly and half seriously, that she one day may write a book about her Wonderettes experiences.
Chances are they may be able to come back for even more. Malone reveals that Bean is working on another sequel. “He is working on a next one, but it is still to be determined when it will actually happen.”
This seems to come as a surprise to everyone else, who are momentarily silent and then start talking all at once. “Good!” Taylor exclaims. “The Wonderettes are marvelous ladies. The world needs more!”
Winter Wonderettes, presented by Musical Theatre West. Opens Dec 9. Plays Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm (additional 7 pm performance Dec 18). Through Dec 18. Tickets: $20-$85. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach.562-856-1999 x4. www.musical.org.
***All Winter Wonderettes production photos by Alysa Brennan