Take the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland, add some sass and attitude and you have a thumbnail sketch of the new, entertaining, somewhat muddled musical, Wonderland. Entertaining because of the eclectic score by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy which echo such familiar sounds as Carlos Santana’s guitar riffs (“Go With the Flow”) and boy groups ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys (“One Knight”), along with some high octane rockers (“The Mad Hatter” and “I Will Prevail), as well as typical Wildhorn-Murphy power ballads (“Once More I Can See”). What makes Wonderland different from some of their past efforts, like Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, is less grandiose, over-the-top compositions and more diversity and sustained tunefulness of the score. As the host of a Broadway music radio program I would have no problem playing over half the songs on my show.
This Wonderland plays off themes of believing in oneself, togetherness, and recapturing one’s childhood. The story starts off in Queens, New York with Alice, a harried working mother, who has marital problems, a young, precocious child and an overbearing mother-in-law to contend with. After a hard day at her teaching job she falls asleep on her daughter’s bed where she awakes to, yes, the White Rabbit running through the bedroom. Following him down the freight elevator of her apartment building she finds herself among the creatures and characters of Wonderland. Alice, played with an endearing edginess and determination by Janet Dacal, just wants to find her way home a la The Wizard of Oz. In fact, a lot about Wonderland emulates this Hollywood classic. Alice even has three friends to help her return—the Caterpillar; El Gato, the Cheshire Cat; and the frightened Cowardly Lion, I mean, White Rabbit. The Queen of Hearts is not the evil witch here. That honor is taken by The Mad Hatter, played with a menacing glee by Kate Shindle. She is Alice or is Alice she? This is where the book, primarily in the second Act, becomes a bit muddled. Where Act I breezes by with an assured sense of direction, adding some wit, humor and topical references, i.e. “The Tea Party” movement, the second half of the musical has trouble finding its voice. Does it want to be a merry romp through Wonderland? An action-packed chase to rescue the damsel in distress? A cerebral meditation? Or, maybe a dominatrix-led funhouse? Or a combination of all of the above? The problem is Director Gregory Boyd is also the bookwriter for the show. A Director without the additional responsibility for the libretto might have tightened up the loose ends or had the gaps in the show filled-in to make the scenes on stage flow less haphazardly. Director Boyd adds pace to the production as well as allowing the more tender moments to play through, but Wonderland seems more a series of individually structured moments as opposed to a more cohesive whole.
What does work quite well are the video projections utilized throughout the musical to augment the show’s sets and whimsical costumes. I’m not a great fan of such a system—when they don’t work properly the whole show suffers--but for Wonderland, Sven Ortel’s psychedelic renderings are a perfect fit to the mind altering mood and atmosphere the creative teams wants portrayed.
The cast is uniformly sound with Dacal, as Alice, and Shindle, as the demented Mad Hatter, the standouts, along with young Carly Rose Sonenclar, as Alice’s daughter, Chloe. Her powerful singing voice was a true highlight of the musical. It was unfortunate she one had a few opportunities to show-off her talent. Darren Ritchie as Jack the White Knight provides the requisite heroic testosterone, and Karen Mason, the necessary comic relief as the Queen of Hearts. Marguerite Derricks’ choreography was underwhelming with just a few flashes of distinction and nuance.
Wonderland, a solid musical effort that is more consolation prize instead of sure fire hit.