Reported on: April 18, 2011 09:40 AM
Reported in: Entertainment
An updated telling of "Alice in Wonderland," the show that opened Sunday at the Marquis Theatre lacks consistency of tone, any hint of originality and a drastic lack of focus. Something here has indeed fallen down the rabbit hole.
The book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy is a jumble of competing ideas thrown on stage in desperate hope that something will stick. Songs by Frank Wildhorn ("Jekyll & Hyde") and Murphy are too inconsistent, derivative and often wallowing in unintended self-parody. What would the Queen of Hearts say? Off with their heads!
It is a show that wastes the talents of Janet Dacal (a real trooper as Alice), E. Clayton Cornelious (somehow projecting dignity in a ridiculous caterpillar suit), Darren Ritchie (straightjacketed as Jack the White Knight) and Kate Shindle (as The Mad Hatter, likely mad now at her agent).
Part of the problem is the story's mishmash of directions, as if it was made by committee. Is it for children? Then why are there so many references to heads being cut off and enslavement and executions? If it's for adults, then what's with the often insipid dialogue? For both? Then neither walk away satisfied, despite the references to bootylicious and "South Pacific."
"Wonderland" doesn't know whether it wants to be a fairy tale or a rock opera or a trippy joke or a cartoon. The show, which had an extensive pre-Broadway stop in Tampa, Fla., proves that even out-of-town tryouts can't always help something that is unsound.
This Alice is a teacher and aspiring novelist living in the New York City neighborhood of Queens whose marriage is on the rocks and whose young daughter is equally unhappy. She drifts off to sleep while reading Lewis Carroll's classic story. In a dreamlike state, she follows a rabbit into an elevator and arrives in Wonderland.
The show then takes on a definite "Wizard of Oz" feel as Alice wanders around like Dorothy with a growing retinue. There's the cool-daddy Caterpillar in a beret; a zoot-suited El Gato, (the Cheshire Cat played by a straining Jose Llana, who has a salsa-inflected song that sounds like Santana rejected it); a white-gloved White Rabbit in spats (a stunned-looking Edward Staudenmayer) and the Knight. One is courageous, one is wise, one is dimwitted, one is cowardly — and all look pretty awkward.
From "Wizard of Oz," the show then tries to move into "Cabaret" or "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" territory as the evil members of Wonderland show up: The head-obsessed Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason, treading water), the March Hare (Danny Stiles channeling Ozzy Osbourne) and the gender-bending Mad Hatter, who stalks about dressed like Christina Aguilera from the "Lady Marmalade" video and clearly would rather be in "Wicked."
Some of the moments are quite fun, like Ritchie leading dancers in the Backstreet Boys parody "One Knight" costumed in Ralph Lauren-like polo jerseys and riding boots. There's also the young Carly Rose Sonenclar, who plays Alice's daughter very convincingly and has a pair of pipes that can wail. Cornelious' "Advice From a Caterpillar" is smoothly delivered, and Dacal is so talented that she almost saves every middling song just by opening her mouth.
But there is too much even for her to do: Susan Hilferty's costumes are just plain odd, often enhancing hips and posteriors pointlessly (Wonderland is apparently in the need of a gym franchise). She also has relied on variations of black and white too much, except when she dresses the Wonderland guards as if they were some sort of bizarre miners, complete with neon green tops, motorcycle helmets, goggles and blue epaulets.
To add insult to injury, Sven Ortel's video projections often smack of those irritating screensavers that come pre-loaded on your computer, while Neil Patel's sets and Marguerite Derricks' choreography seem too safe for a place called Wonderland.
By the time Act 2 rolls around, whatever momentum was built up has gone and the actors seems to visibly sag in their roles, as if they are just playing out the clock. At a recent preview, more than a few patrons had decided not to return to their seats after intermission. (Perhaps they were late for a more important date.)
They miss a truly terrible — and out-of-the-blue — scene between Alice and a wooden Lewis Carroll (Ritchie again), an even worse one between Alice and her child self, and they never see the Queen of Hearts' big Broadway number "Off With Their Heads," a tacked-on number complete with leggy dancers dressed as playing cards. It's like a Vegas lounge act threw up, but without the humor.
In the end, Alice makes it back to Queens and her daughter ("I thought this was going to be the worst day of my life. And instead it's like something from a storybook," says the daughter, in an insulin-inducing line.) Alice has learned that capturing the magic of Wonderland is really about finding out who you are.
It is advice this musical should have taken a long time ago.