Alice at the Alley
It’s a wonderful time for Wonderland. Tim Burton’s film will be released this year, and Marilyn Manson plans to release a horror film based on the life and works of Lewis Carroll. The Alley Theatre leads the way with the world premiere of the new musical, Wonderland, loosely based on Carroll’s children’s stories “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.”
Alice Cornwinkle (Janet Decal) is a modern-day author who is about to be presented the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice in Wonderland’ award and it is the worst day of her life. Her marriage is dissolving and when her daughter, Chloe (Julie Brooks), accidentally overhears her parents discussing divorce, she runs away from home. Alice falls into a strange dream, going down the elevator shaft — no rabbit holes here — to search for her daughter in the fantastical wonderland. The set-up is a little confusing, but what follows is unabashed fun.
Alice meets a variety of characters in Wonderland. She is welcomed to the dream world by a chorus line of dancing Alices, some of whom are men, their look inspired by the classic 1951 Disney film. The show is filled with an array of characters who give a twist to Wonderland’s familiar cast, from a hepcat caterpillar (Tommar Wilson) and a Carlos Santana-inspired “El Gato” (Jose Llana) with a Cheshire grin, to an oblivious Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason) and her sinister minister, the Mad Hatter (Nikki Snelson). A perpetually anxious White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer) and an obnoxiously good-looking White Knight (Darren Ritchie) round out the cast.
The story itself has a variety of problems. The play can’t seem to decide if the events take place in a world separate from our own, or if Wonderland is actually a dream where danger is illusory and the events are all metaphorical. Act I tends towards the former, as Alice searches for her daughter. In Act II, however, Alice seems to realize that the search is really for her own inner child — a child that sees the wonder in the world.
Alice has moments, generally during musical numbers, where she appears to entirely forget the possible dangers facing her missing daughter. So the story and characters fall down at times.
Wonderland’s saving graces are the visuals, costumes, and musical numbers. Through a combination of lighting and projection, the play’s visual effects expand the world of Wonderland beyond simple sets and basic choreography. The costumes are creative and unusual, and they add a graphic quality to the look of the show.
The musical numbers make the show enjoyable, even when the narrative logic proves difficult to follow. The caterpillar sings a jazzy song, while El Gato performs a spicy dance piece in the style of Carlos Santana or Ricky Martin.
The White Knight and his fellow knights perform a few 1990’s-style boy band pop songs, with complimentary visual effects of hearts, rainbows and pink ponies. The Queen of Hearts, completely unaware of the machinations going on around her, quickly becomes an audience favorite, singing her favorite phrase, “off with their heads!” The Mad Hatter, based on the pop-rock singer Pink, exchanges simple madness for psychotic mania with a few songs of her own. Also included is the nightmarish Jabberwock (Tad Wilson), who, with eyes of flame, sings an 1980’s Bon Jovi rock anthem about how he’s been misunderstood — people think he’s a monster, just because he likes to eat people. Alice defeats the Jabberwock, not with a vorpal sword, but with the realization that her fears cannot defeat her if she doesn’t let them.
Most of the cast have appeared in Broadway shows and do the best with the story given them. Wonderland has, at its heart, a good message about finding the wonder and magic that exists in the world today. However, it suffers from unsuccessfully trying to imitate the distinctive absurd humor of Lewis Carroll.
Still, it is an immensely enjoyable experience. Wonderland will continue at the Alley Theatre through Feb. 14.