nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 15, 2011
By their very nature, adaptations are familiar. Wonderland, the energetic and visually satisfying musical based on Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pulls the story into the 21st century, relocates the characters to Queens, New York, and borrows enough music from award-winning productions to warrant a self-devised guessing game that might be called "Name That Show." This, in itself, becomes amusing when lyrics and tunes from the likes of Gypsy and The Music Man are incorporated into an early musical number. Less obvious, and perhaps inadvertent, references or melodic phrases pop up in subsequent songs that bring to mind Into the Woods, Jersey Boys, and Wicked—making the identity crisis in Wonderland more than Alice’s. Jack Murphy (lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn (music) are responsible. Still, the voices of the cast are uniformly good and there is a lot of razzle dazzle to push the plot forward, particularly in Act I.
Gregory Boyd (who also directs) and Murphy wrote the updated book. In their version, Alice, newly separated from her unemployed husband Jack, has moved to an apartment in Queens with her daughter, Chloe. On this first evening in the apartment, Chloe laments to her grandmother that this is the worst day of her life. Later, Alice blows in after a hard day of teaching, complaining of a terrible headache. She rips open a packet from the publisher who has approved her proposal for a children’s book only to find that the book itself is rejected. Alice closes her eyes, and finds herself descending in an elevator, landing in Wonderland. Here she meets the familiar characters plus a few additions: a jealous and ruthless Mad Hatter, who kidnaps Chloe because she is jealous of Alice; a sage Victorian gentleman; and a White Knight, who turns out to be Alice’s husband.
Boyd and Murphy alternate between two themes: Alice’s identity crisis (as wife, mother, and professional) and the definition of home (“It’s where your memories are and where you must return … not an address”). Their story works, even though one theme would provide more focus. Their tongue-in-cheek approach mixes contemporary references, spoofiness, and goofy one-liners. In one introduction, the lithe, Latino El Gato, otherwise known as the Cheshire Cat, rejoins with a whisper, “My friends call me … Che”; in another, the White Knight explains that he "attend[s] night school." Ba-BOOM. It’s all meant in good fun, and the cast looks like they are enjoying it.
Janet Dacal reveals the many moods demanded of Alice: stress of a single working mother, dashed hopes of a writing career, and tentativeness when she reaches foreign territory. Her natural human qualities pop as she meets the larger-than life characters of Wonderland, but she is best in intimate moments, such as the plaintive “Worst Day of My Life.” Carly Rose Sonenclar is simultaneously mature and childlike—a dichotomy of qualities that seems to distinguish children growing up in New York. Her Chloe is unself-consciously confident and bold, yet she still likes her bedtime story and is homesick for all that is familiar. Her maturity is especially evident in her mellow voice. Edward Staudenmayer contributes a likeable, dithery White Rabbit; Danny Stiles, replete with a Rastafarian 'do, adds to the wackiness as Morris the March Hare. Kate Shindle, with little opportunity for nuance, embodies all the evil in the story as the ambitious and ruthless Mad Hatter. The two most endearing characters are the Caterpillar and El Gato appealingly played by E. Clayton Cornelious and Jose Llana, respectively.
Darren Ritchie, who glibly plays Jack the White Knight, stands out in the musical number “One Night,” a 1950s doo-wop piece that alternates moves of muscle-bound he-men and light-weight fairies to hilarious effect. Spandex never looked so good. Ritchie doubles as the mysterious Victorian Gentleman and as Jack, Alice’s husband. The Queen of Hearts, because she is dressed in a spectacular collage of oversized playing cards, could hold her own even if she were a mouse. But she is not. She is Karen Mason, who commands the title and delivers on vocals as well. As Queen, she wears eye glasses to distinguish her from the sanguine role of grandmother, and takes on an uncanny resemblance to Dame Edna, figure excluded.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes carry the day. They are playful, detailed, and character-specific, contributing to each actor’s performance. Most of the costumes are black and white, which allows the Queen’s red and yellow extravaganza in Act II, with its explosive farthingales (hip bolsters), to mesmerize. Her black and white costume in Act I also defies casual glances. Hilferty uses splayed cards as a descending peplum and incorporates much more detail than I could grasp without a slow circular turn by Mason, and more fashion vocabulary than I have. Let it be said that the Queen’s get-up captures her character and projects her importance. Other costumes show wit and whimsy. El Gato’s long tail provides a worthy prop, and if you look carefully during a ¾-turn you will see the casual change of pattern on El Gato’s back. And then there is the Caterpillar and his ensemble of legs … but I digress. The costumes couldn’t be more stimulating or satisfying.
Neil Patel’s Wonderland sets also captivate. The animated scrims entertain even before the curtain rises, El Gato’s silver car with jeweled-encrusted hubcaps dazzles, the set for the tea party delivers, and the musty, dark library of the Victorian Gentleman contrasts nicely with the rest of the glitz. Patel’s use of neon for opening doors is magnetic. Derricks’s choreography is clever, particularly in “One Knight” and “Advice From a Caterpillar.” She leaves little room to catch a breath in Act I.
Act II suffers on one major front. There are no real surprises. We know the story, we’ve seen the costumes and the best of the sets, and there is little in the way of choreography. There are, perhaps, three or four places where Wonderland could end. Unfortunately, Boyd and Murphy choose the last.