Sound Advice Reviews
The now-open-on-Broadway version of Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy's Wonderland spawns a cast recording, with some songs lost (and found) in the journey from concept recording to out-of-town tryouts and previews, via the rabbit hole, looking glass, and rewriting.
It's not your mother's Alice in Wonderland and not the book she might have read to you; the musical called Wonderland picks and chooses samplings of Lewis Carroll's delicious nonsense and characters and puts them in a high speed blender with new ideas and charactersand more sass than whimsy. Add a dose of sincerity and different musical styles, and you get an odd mixture that works as entertaining individual performance pieces often enough to intrigue as a recording, despite it seeming like a crazy quilt patchwork rather than a smooth piece that holds together. Even in its unevenness, it's got satisfying and often showy performances. The show uses the original characters and plot as more of a reference point with lots of winking and detours to new elements and messages, not to mention Alice being an adult who's more peeved than curious.
The Alice stories have been inspiration for many musical treatments on stage, on film, and in animated features, some more loyal to the books and their wordplay and eccentric madness, others adding sweetener to the sour characters, rethinking and streamlining. If you didn't know what it was, you might hear this recording and think it's a compilation album of a few different musicalizations by different writers from different eras. That's how much a mixed bag it is. An optimist might say it has something for everyone. A pessimist might say it's a frustratingly incoherent thing to hear. A realist might say that listeners will probably have very different choices about what appeals and what is a misfire. Most gratifyingly, there's some exciting, musical comedy splash, personality-plus tour de force singing, comic flair, and some heartwarming moments that work. Rather than a train wreck, it's a musical voyage that has potholes and engine trouble, but also some swell stops along the way.
The earlier concept recording has many of the same stars and many of the same songs, but neither is exactly what is in the current state of the stage production. The new CD betrays the show's desperation to grab the ears (and on stage, the eyes) of those suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Its understandable choice of a frantic tone results in some clatter and clutter, with busyeven noisyorchestrations and some screechy, edgy singing (particularly on "Down the Rabbit Hole"understandable given the panic and confusion and whirling fall). But so much else here suffers from overkilllobbing on one more layer of voices and orchestral sounds as a song grows huger and huger like Alice in the book after partaking of that drink or the mushroom. Frank Wildhorn's non-ballad melodies favor the frantic and fevered pitch, and the full-throttle, busy, bustling sounds seem to be the chosen way on this CD he produced along with orchestra contractor David Lai and the production's supervising musical director, conductor, arranger of dance and incidental music and co-vocal arranger Jason Howland. They and orchestrator/ musical supervisor Kim Scharnberg seem to subscribe to a philosophy that plenty of percussion to emphasize and energize is always a good idea. Slam-bang, crash, it'll sound like a hit song if ya hit 'em over the head. And, if all else fails, modulate, and then pump up the volume. But sometimes, to quote one of the many unused Lewis Carroll phrases, it can be "much of a muchness." And crash, bang can get to be a crashing bore.
Kate Shindle as the new addition of a female Mad Hatter, majoring in Meanness, out for power instead of tea and non-sympathy and posing riddles, has been directed to wail most of her material to a fare-thee-well as if told that "shrill" equals "thrill." (It's too bad because she is a far more versatile performer who can use her voice in attractive and subtle ways given the chance.) The character gets a lot of stage and disc time as the not-very-funny, not-very-necessary vexed villain.
Janet Dacal as our Alice, a tired mom who stumbles (or rather tumbles) into a Wonderland via the service elevator in her building in Queens, also is called on to turn on the vocal blazes and blasts. Thankfully, she gets the sincere stuff in act two and handles that with some grace and emotional investment of the more calibrated kind. Singing about her inner child and seeking "Home," she can be quite moving and finally we have the great discovery that less can be more. But usually here, more is more and there's more to come.
Showy showcases for a few other performers are opportunities seized with relish and delivered with flair. Jose Llana as El Gato, a bursting-with-joy and goodwill Cheshire Cat prancing to a Latin beat, is a treat, going to town leading the big number "Go with the Flow." It's a highlight and he brings a sunniness and sizzle to the proceedings. Karen Mason is a considerable and invaluable asset to this piece as the Queen of Hearts who revels in the majesty of being Her Majesty. With the female Mad Hatter taking the nasty, imperious, delirious characteristics the Queen usually shows, she's free to have more juicy fun. And does she ever! With delicious humor, shtick, and well-targeted twisting of words and an arsenal of show biz savvy, the two production numbers she leads are highlights of the CD. Playing up the ego trip, relishing her royally swollen head from power and wielding power by tossing about her famous threat to remove the heads of others, she belts, is brassy, takes her goofball moments, and never makes a goof.
Especially gratifying and satisfying vocally and character-wise is leading man Darren Ritchie. He plays the earnest and endearing White Knight, a refreshingly innocent, noble hero amid the cacophony and sarcasm. He's also the moral-of-our-story deliveryman, a certain Victorian Gentleman of note encountered by Alice; and he comes in at the end, playing her estranged husband (perhaps her real-life White Knight all along?). He's just marvelous, singing with unspoiled, naïve determination leading the charge of knight brigade "Through the Looking Glass" and crooning about nobly being "One Knight"a song that apes poppy-sweet boy band mannerisms and back-up harmonies in its style. It's pastiche panache.
Like Wildhorn's music that can sound like pages out of powerhouse Chess-like pieces, power ballads, powerhouse numbers with energies sprayed machine-gun style, slinky funk, a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan, yearning swirls of melody, and the aforementioned Latin strut and blithe boy band bliss, just as all-over-the-map are the lyric styles of Jack Murphy (who co-wrote the book, barely sampled here, with director Gregory Boyd). Some songs speak plainly to the point of uninspired conversational banalities ("Why can't we all be together the way we used to be" from "Home") to philosophical ("Not the way things are, but how they should be ... this is what is true" in "I Am My Own Invention") to little fun triple-rhymed commentary (in "Welcome to Wonderland": "Could she be the one you know?/ Tin man, lion, scarecrow/ Wait, that's from another show" and "Every day it's something new/ Problems up the old wazoo/ Rumors of a palace coup"; and in "The Mad Hatter" song: "It's me or the queen and her serene guillotine").
The booklet contains all the lyrics and several full-page photos from this production with its brightly-colored, sometimes quirky costumes. If only there were more quirkiness throughoutoh, there's some for sure, but it's not spot-on wacky; instead, creepy substitutes for eccentric, and nasty fills in for nutty. But if the sum of the parts is not a wondrous Wonderland, some of those partsand the people playing some of those partsbring satisfaction, and the spirit of Lewis Carroll, often lost in the shuffle or consciously shuffled off to a consultant role, occasionally surfaces.