Theater Review: Wonderland (Broadway)

There is a significant challenge in trying to adapt Lewis Carroll's classic children's novels Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass for performance. The stories are episodic in nature. Alice meets one character, then another, then another until she finds her way home. She discovers who she is, why she went to Wonderland, and how to get back home. The plot isn't as important as the journey Alice takes. Wonderland is a new Broadway musical from composer Frank Wildhorn. The musical plays much like the book, until it doesn't anymore, which is the major problem with the show. Wonderland as a musical suffers from the same identity crisis that Alice faces when she first drinks from the bottle and meets a hookah-smoking caterpillar: it just doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Janet Dacal stars as an adult Alice. She is a school teacher who recently moved to Queens, NY with her daughter, Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar), in an effort to distance herself from her out of work husband Jack. Alice hits her head in the freight elevator and passes out on her daughter's bed. From there, she sees a White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer) running for the freight elevator and descends below the depths of Queens into Wonderland.

Most of the first act plays out like the book. She follows the White Rabbit to a door she can't fit through so she drinks from the bottle to meet the Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious). El Gato (Jose Llana) pops in to toy with Alice's perceptions. He leads Alice to The White Knight (Darren Ritchie) who promises to be her hero. The White Knight brings Alice to the Mad Hatter's (Kate Shindle) tea party, which is where the story starts to change. It turns out the Mad Hatter is conspiring with Morris the March Hare (Danny Stiles) to take over Wonderland. The Mad Hatter has made the Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason) very paranoid about her own subjects, leading to the knee-jerk executions of anyone who doesn't curtail to her every whim. Alice quickly winds up on the wrong side of the Mad Hatter and now must find a way to get home before the crazy one does any harm to her or her family.

Wonderland's first act is the tightest and most adorable production I've ever seen on Broadway. The children in the audience absolutely loved the visuals while the adults in the audience laughed at the wordplay and spins on classic literary characters. It is clear from "Welcome to Wonderland" (the first big production number in the magical land) that this is Carroll's vision transformed through the demented lens of the Looney Tunes' Wackyland. The sun is always smiling and bright blues and greens litter the landscape.

Frank Wildhorn's score is worthy of praise for the breadth of styles he links together. El Gato's songs have a Latin-rock flare, while The Queen of Hearts sings vaudeville-pastiche with constant references to great classic showtunes (like a spoken word breakdown ala "Trouble" from The Music Man or a heartfelt address to her subjects ala "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" from Evita). The White Knight is pure 1990's boy band and The Mad Hatter spins a big band jazz groove. Alice and her daughter Chloe are power-pop ballads and the large ensemble numbers are oompah-bassed showtunes. None of the music feels out of place because there are consistent structures and flourishes of bizarre instrumentation to link them together.

The greatest asset in the show is the innovative use of projection screens and static set pieces. These seven panels--one back flat the width of the stage, two together as a front curtain, and four sliding columns--allow the vision of Wonderland to flow as smoothly as the book. Alice goes from her apartment in Queens (a bed and a projected backdrop of wallpaper) to the freight elevator (the backdrop and two side panels) to Wonderland (the backdrop and Tetris-like blocks of foliage) without a single pause. Then there are the optical illusions created with the panels. Characters appear and disappear out of nowhere when panels cross to great applause. The single greatest illusion is the journey through the looking glass at the end of Act I, where the mirror shatters and shards fly out through the layers of projection to allow the traveling actors to vanish in an instant.

Sadly, Wonderland's second act is a mess. Where Act I was entirely about Alice's journey, Act II spreads the focus too wide. There is a big problem if the story of Alice in Wonderland suddenly cares more about the Mad Hatter, the White Knight, or even the Queen of Hearts than the journey of the titular character. An absurd plot distracts from what was turning into a heartfelt story about the power of self-reflection to guide a person in life. There are also plot threads that are set up that never matter again. For example, the Mad Hatter explains that no two characters can occupy the same square in the chessboard of the Looking Glass World, yet she's constantly in the same square etched on the stage as many other characters. This sets up a fight between Alice and the Mad Hatter that never comes to fruition. The play even introduces a mind-control conceit that is resolved within five minutes of the initial explanation. It's sloppy storytelling that feels more like Wildhorn's collaborators wanted to remake The Wiz then update the story of Alice in Wonderland.

In spite of the misdirection of the second act, it is worth seeing Wonderland. The actors are all great, singing one of Wildhorn's most tuneful and entertaining scores to date. The design innovations alone are worth the price of admission. The flaws in narrative are balanced by the show-stopping production numbers. If you accept that this is about Alice's journey with a few misguided diversions, you'll have a fun and memorable night.

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