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A CurtainUp Review
Chloe's mother Alice (Janet Dacal), a writer of children's books, arrives home after work and is discouraged when she opens a letter from her publisher stating that her most recent manuscript has been rejected. "It's the Worst Day of My Life" Alice and Chloe jointly commiserate.
To make matters worse, Alice has a headache, the result of hitting her head on a light fixture riding up in the lurching service elevator. Left to rest alone, Alice is startled when The White Rabbit suddenly darts into the room but just as quickly departs. If her headache was about to miraculously disappear, mine was about to begin.
Without having any factual figures, I suspect that there may be almost as many either reverential, audacious and even perverse variations (film and stage) on the Lewis Carroll classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as there are of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. On the surface, there is no good reason to object to the approach that composer Frank Wildhorn and his collaborators Frank Murphy (book and lyrics) and George Gregory (book and lyrics) have taken to give a contemporary resonance to Carroll's absurdist Victorian fantasy. But for the deafening assault on our ears, the result of a sound system that takes no prisoners, there are elements that do work in this occasionally sufferable musical.
Wildhorn has previously demonstrated his flair for dispensing melodic content into such classic literary texts as Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, even Dracula, The Musical. His score for Wonderland certainly has its quotient of tolerable tunes, mainly the ballads. It's a shame that neither Boyd and Murphy's relentlessly in-jokey book nor Boyd's pedestrian direction measure up to the show's stunning visual accessories.
A lot of consideration has obviously been given to this musical's often off-the-wall displays of eye-candy: Susan Hilferty's fantastical costumes (especially for The Queen of Hearts) and the plethora of flashy splashy high tech video projections (the work of Sven Ortel.) Set designer Neil Patel keeps a countless number of colorful set pieces sliding and gliding, expanding and contracting within a silvery Victorian frame, all of which is beautifully embraced by the often dazzling lighting of designer Paul Gallo.
Whatever lurks behind our evidently eternal fascination with the adventurous and certainly curious Alice, it isn't too much a shock to find her as an adult in New York. As portrayed with a beguiling vitality by Dacal, this Alice is rightly concerned about her career as a writer, a marriage on the skids and a neglected daughter. This is as good as reason as any for her to follow a white rabbit down a hole, only in this instance it's that darn service elevator. And what a long and wild ride it proves to be.
In deference for those who may be hesitant about taking a different route to Wonderland, some of the original Alice drawings by John Tenniel are projected on the scrim before the show begins and again before Act II. These delightful images have been subtly animated. As they are also accompanied by quotes from the original book, these were for this viewer the most charming part of the show.
Alice's destination is meant to be giddily disorienting as she encounters a host of nutty, some even odious, characters in her quest for an explanation and an escape route. The catch is that in contriving a modern twist for the familiar story, director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy have only fitfully succeeded in making the journey amusing. It's certainly never whimsical. To be fair, you could credit them with actually attempting to make more sense of the original, a dubious goal.
What makes Dacal particularly winning is that she is far removed from the classic image of Alice. This heroine is a curly-haired redhead who gets opportunities to belt out some deafening high notes in the current tradition that equates louder with better. She also dances up a storm in numbers choreographed without much imagination by Marguerite Derricks. You will have to wait until Act II to hear Dacal sing "Once More I Can See," one of those powerhouse, I-can-sing-any-note-higher-louder-longer-than- you-thought-humanly-possible ballads for which Wildhorn and his ilk in contemporary musical theater are most notable.
There is ' a bit of sweetly contrived cleverness (call it an escape clause) that has Alice meet a reflective Lewis Carroll (Darren Ritchie) in Act II, in which she has the opportunity to see herself as a child again (the particularly disarming Sonenclar.) It is a lovely touch, as is the song they share "I Am My Own Invention." Sonenclar is a terrific young performer who shows up again in Act II when Chloe is coerced by The Mad Hatter to enter Wonderland.
Alice, however, has her first madcap encounter in Wonderland with a Latino Cheshire Cat El Gato (Jose Llana) who wastes no time inviting her to join him in a spirited salsa ("Go With the Flow".) It's a shame that Llana and E. Clayton Cornelious, who plays the squirmy-jazzy Caterpillar, accompanied by a bevy of "legs" work hard to amuse, but aren't helped by their so-so material.
Edward Staudenmayer is presumably not meant to be funny — and isn't — as the discombobulated White Rabbit. Karen Mason, however, makes a fine impression and a splendid transformation from mother-in-law to Wonderland's execution-obsessed Queen of Hearts who, with three back-up singers, gives the show a touch of old styled vaudeville with a diverting "Off With Their Heads." Kate Shindle is much too bland and posy as Alice's nemesis the villainous Mad Hatter who plans to usurp the Queen of Heart's throne.
It certainly makes sense that the reasonably dashing and personable Darren Ritchie who plays Jack The White Knight is ready and eager to rescue this damsel in distress. Dressed, as are his pals, for a game of polo (eh, what?) Jack also gets the show's biggest laugh and sustained applause when he answers Alice's query about those Wonderlanders, Danny Stiles as Morris the March Hare, who aquabbling at an important gathering that afternoon. =="It's mostly an angry, mean-spirited bunch of bullies who want to do away with everyone and everything, but don't have a clue what they'd put in its place. It's called The Tea Party."
Ritchie sings a disarming ballad, almost a spoof, "One Knight." It makes sense that he will reappear late in the show as Alice's husband returning to his family. Dacal and the entire company express a kind of shared relief in "Finding Wonderland." with these apt lyrics: "It's not too late. Here in my prime, Hearts can unbreak, In the story's nick of time — A happy ending," A perfect rhyme? Hardly, but what can you expect after a nasty bump on the head?