"The Marvelous Wonderettes," a candy-colored import from Milwaukee, is, in a way, the purest form of jukebox musical: a transparent excuse to hear a hit parade from the 1950s and '60s performed live. For theatergoers content to bask in girl-group renditions of tunes like "The Shoop Shoop Song" and "Leader of the Pack" for two hours, it will go down easy as a malted milk shake. Otherwise, even the show's charming cast may not get you through a marathon evening of sugary nostalgia.
Roger Bean, who wrote and directed, is working from a simple premise here. In the first act, four high school girlfriends perform at the 1958 prom (backed by an invisible, prerecorded band); in the second act, they take the stage for their 10-year reunion. Mr. Bean seems to view a book as nothing more complicated than a couple of lines to get you from song to song, and that's what he provides, in an unabashedly connect-the-dots way. (He is not above naming one girl's boyfriend "Bill" so she can then sing, "Come on and marry me, Bill.")
Nor is Mr. Bean much troubled by the gender politics of either 1958 or 1968. His all-female musical revue, framed by a kind of glossy nostalgia, is untouched by any rumblings of the sexual revolution or the women's movement. The Wonderettes wear crinolines in Act 1 and go-go boots in Act 2, but there's no consciousness-raising in between. By 1968, when a couple of the gals find themselves stuck with no-good husbands and boyfriends, they sing woebegone ballads begging their fellas to come back to them. Goaded on by her pals, one Wonderette takes a stab at Aretha Franklin's "Respect," but her heart's not in it; she feels more comfortable singing "Rescue Me."
But though Mr. Bean's book provides only paper-thin characterizations, the four talented actresses cast as the Wonderettes endow their characters with contours and personalities. Beth Malone ("Ring of Fire") gives spunky alto Betty Jean, the redhead, a beguiling mix of fire and fun. One moment her blood may boil, but the next, she's cracking up at her own onstage pranks. Saddled with a bunch of microphone-grabbing business involving her best friend, the pretty scene-stealer Cindy Lou (Victoria Matlock), she manages to infuse those predictable antics with something unpredictable: a pout that can turn on a dime into an ear-to-ear grin.
As Cindy Lou, Ms. Matlock makes a terrific budding diva, seizing the spotlight with a fey toss of her long brunette mane. Her telegenic smile never wavers; even in high school, she's already performing for the camera she trusts will soon arrive to capture her loveliness. Yet Ms. Matlock supplements Cindy Lou's teenage vanity with a sweet underside; if there's one thing all the Wonderettes are, it's likable.
Farah Alvin plays Missy, the shy girl with the cat-eye specs who turns out to be able to belt with the best of them. Yet even while working squarely within the stereotype, Ms. Alvin gives the pent-up introvert an unexpected flair. Missy may be the one who diligently sews the costumes, but she's also got a smoldering, buried sensuality.
Suzy (Bets Malone), the gum-chewing blonde with the Betty Boop voice, sails through the show on the strength of Ms. Malone's immense appeal; she's impervious to the various traps laid for her by Mr. Bean's book. Among other challenges, she has to have heart-to-heart exchanges with the unseen guy working the lights. (He serenades her with on-and-off flashes.) But Ms. Malone makes giddy moments from such unpromising origins.
Despite his shortcomings as a writer, Mr. Bean directs with a practiced hand. The brisk, breezy numbers flow painlessly into one another with the barely-interrupted rhythms of a radio show. He stages the musical numbers with ease, particularly in the higher-energy first act, in which he adroitly mixes up the format to keep the audience engaged. (Mr. Bean would have made a perfect "American Bandstand" director.) Michael Carnahan's winking set, a high school gym plastered with streamers, sports banners, and cut-out hearts, is pitch-perfect, as is Janet Miller's girl-group choreography.
The cumulative effect of all this pastel nostalgia — naïve, absolutely unironic, full of good cheer — is very un-New York, and you may well feel as if you've gone to Milwaukee for the evening. (One suspects that the audience for "Wonderettes" will prove to be a largely out-of-town one.) More than that, you have traveled to Mr. Bean's idealized version of the Eisenhower-era past, where the kids are squeaky clean and feminism never happened, and all the girls are sweet and sincere, with great pipes.
Open run (407 W. 43rd St,. between Ninth and Tenth avenues, 212-239-6200).