Review: Swift Creek Mill’s “Winter Wonderettes”

Swift Creek Mill’s “Winter Wonderettes” is the Perfect Way to Jumpstart Your Holiday Season

By Toniraye M. Moss

Reflective of post-World War II middle class America, Swift Creek Mill’s “Winter Wonderettes” is a lighthearted musical set in 1968 in Harper’s Hardware store as the “Wonderettes” gather to prepare the entertainment for a workplace Holiday party. Motivated by their impending bonuses, they take us on a journey of their own whims and desires where the audience and supporting cast are one and the same. Initially, I was drawn in by the unexpected audience participation, but it was the intricately-paired harmony, with familiar Christmas melodies whose lyrics unfolded the storyline, which held my attention.

Sweet little Suzy, expertly played by Anne Michelle Forbes, immediately tugs at your heartstrings with her infectious laugh and childlike quality. Her character is Shirley Temple meets Katy Mixon with her vibrant innocence and precocious ability to connect with old and young alike. Adorably refreshing, her rendition of “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” in Act One, followed by her “Suzy Snowflake” tap dance and quick costume change in Act Two, will certainly compel you to think on your own childhood dreams and how they take shape in your adult world. Easily a fan favorite, Forbes will steal your heart and have you wrapped around her little finger.

For those craving diversity in a show set in 1968, you will be pleasantly surprised with the ensemble’s performance of “Its Christmas All Over the World,” woven with complimentary layers of song and comedy, followed by the aforementioned “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” and “Mele Kalikimaka,” which had me longing to return to Hawai’i! Soprano Georgi Hicks, who plays the sensible, organized, and put together Missy, gives the audience a glimpse of her character’s vulnerable feminine side with “Mele Kalikimaka,” as she sways and sings her way to our growing curiosity. In her portrayal, Hicks allows us to discover that even a sensible woman in 1968 was fashioned with whims and romantic ideals.

Hicks further elaborates on her vulnerability as she leads the ensemble in the holiday song “This Christmas” popularized by the Temptations and, decades later, by Chris Brown. I was slightly curious as to how a song recorded and released on ATCO Records in the fall and winter of 1970 appears in a production set in 1968. Written by Donny Hathaway (billed as Donny Pitts) and Nadine McKinnon, “This Christmas” was Hathaway’s intentional effort to write a song reflective of Black Americans and their spirit of hope and celebration despite struggle. As such, though not conceptualized until 1970, “This Christmas” was a welcome addition even though it might not be historically accurate. Not only does this song make sense to the storyline but it is a true nod of appreciation for the culture and contributions of Black Americans in both music and in history, which Hicks perfectly captured with her ability to emote the lyrics while remaining true to the vulnerable experience of her character, Missy.

One cast member I would love to hear more from, especially when it comes to harmonies, is Alanna Wilson, who expertly portrayed Betty Jean. I found myself reminded of a young Bette Midler with her feisty, non-compromising, and defiant, oh-so-real approach to Betty Jean. There were numerous moments when the volume of her microphone was either too low or not well mixed, so I had to strain to hear key harmonies on audience favorites like “Mister Santa,” “Mister Sandman,” and “Santa Claus is Comin to Town.” Nonetheless, Ms. Wilson’s rendition of “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day,” paired with her ability to expertly lull you into her lonely state of being, makes you want to wait for her eventual outcome because she takes you from raw and feisty to an unexpected depth of understanding with this song, which reminds us that the holiday season can be difficult for many.

Rounding out this ensemble is Rachel Marrs, who initially had me wishing for more depth and exploration in her role as Cindy Lou. Playing the stereotypical blonde attention-obsessed character, what Ms. Marrs may lack in convincing the audience of the sincerity of her character’s stereotype in Act One, she more than makes up for with her vocals and acting during “All Those Christmas Clichés” in Act Two. Wait for it because Marrs makes this moment so very worth it. Paul Deiss’ musical direction along with Marrs’ emotional vocal interpretation will leave you transfixed. She understands the buildup of a song, not giving too much too soon. By withholding any vocal gymnastics unnecessary to the scene, Marrs remains true to the integrity of Cindy Lou’s vulnerable state, and we see her inner being revealed beyond the surface. This moment was so moving, leaving some audience members in need of a handkerchief to blot their eyes. Her performance was especially beautiful.

If having a well-rounded, talented ensemble with active audience participation isn’t enough, the technical elements, including Joe Doran’s joyful lighting design, scenic design led by the show’s Director Tom Width, and Paul Deiss’ brilliant musical direction exceed all expectations. With the lights dimmed, the festive colors of the holiday lights dance along the walls, creating a feeling of cozy warmth in the auditorium. It was the perfect frame for a well-designed stage full of smartly wrapped boxes, large and small, in a hardware store full of organized wall of tape, power cords, and even potholders with a center stage fit for Santa, who was way too busy to show up for the performance! Adding to this wonderful dynamic was the ringing of the bells so nicely emphasized by the sound team who certainly make sure the audience has an enhanced experience. Though choreography for the dance numbers was minimal, the transitions between scenes were smooth and seamless thanks to Width’s smart direction.

Though we never get to see Santa onstage, “because he is so very busy,” this is certainly a show that families, young couples, and even couples on a first date will enjoy. As light and lively as it is unexpectedly thoughtful and vulnerable, “Winter Wonderettes” is the perfect way to jumpstart your holiday season and your New Year 2022!

Swift Creek Mill’s “Winter Wonderettes” runs until January 1st, 2022. Tickets cost $49, www.swiftcreekmill.com.

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