Every year since 1997, during the month of December, the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) has presented an original musical written by composer/playwright David Kisor and playwright Joe McDonough. These family friendly productions have included unique spins on such familiar tales as The Frog Princess, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty. This year finds a revised version of the duo's 1998 offering Alice In Wonderland in a suitably off-center, well-performed, and well-staged production.
Alice In Wonderland was originally written in 1867 by Lewis Carroll. This adaptation follows a modern day rebellious pre-teen into the strange world of hyperactive rabbits, puzzling tea parties, and games of croquet with the Queen of Hearts. As young Alice attempts to understand her new environment, she also learns a few life lessons on ethics, respect, and responsibility.
The book by McDonough and Kisor is appropriately abstract much of the time, reflecting the odd world of Wonderland. There is sufficient humor and conflict, and the moral issues raised are important. The book does an effective job of introducing the characters in the story as well. The target audience of the show does appear, however, to be somewhat unclear. The abstract nature of the story is sure to go over the heads of the many young children who will see the show, but it is at times a bit too juvenile for adults. The show might be most apt for "tweeners," but still there is enough to entertain most audience members regardless of age.
The score by David Kisor is one of his better efforts. The tunes are melodic and catchy, and the lyrics include some interesting wordplay. The pleasant melody of "Falling," sung when Alice is arriving in Wonderland, is matched by dissonant chords (referencing the odd situations she will soon encounter) and some skilled lyrics. Various musical styles are employed in the score, including country, calypso, rockabilly, torch songs, and concluding with the jazzy "Don't Mess With The Queen." The one musical drawback is the bland synthesized "canned" accompaniment.
As the title character, young Bonnie Emmer displays a confident stage presence, solid acting, and a fine singing voice. ETC regular a. Beth Harris impresses as the hip and sultry Cheshire Cat, and brings her beautiful voice to two of the shows best songs, "I Am What I Am What I Am" and "Cat's Got Your Tongue." Deb Girdler is a hoot as the hotheaded Queen and seems to be aptly channeling Dame Edna in her delivery of some of the material. As the Mad Hatter, Shannon Rae Lutz is wonderfully zany and confusing, and Michael G. Bath is an energetic and frenetic Rabbit. Comedy relief is provided by the funny Jared Doren as the Mock Turtle. Rounding out the talented cast are Sara Smith (Tweedledee), Jim Stump (Tweedledum), Annie Fitzpatrick (Caterpillar), Stephanie Dannemiller (Doormouse), Niki Jocabsen (March Hare), Adam Parrish (Card 2), Patrick Muncie (Card 5), and Stephen Bishop (Card 7).
Director D. Lynn Meyers successfully balances the presentation of the mystifying situations of Wonderland with the real-life problems and background of Alice. Ms. Meyers makes some ingenious staging choices, most notably the clever way she handles the changes in Alice's size. The choreography by Dee Anne Bryll and Victoria Morgan is fun and showcased in the show's final scenes. Scenic and lighting designer Brian Mehring provides some refreshing visual delights as usual. His simple unit consists of a huge staircase, a large gate, and a checkerboard floor. The pieces are decorated with spiral designs (which are also suitably featured in his fun lighting), and are colored in black, white, and red. Reba Senske's imaginative costumes have a fun circus look to them.
Alice in Wonderful is a charming and wacky musical parable that features strong performances and solid production values. The show continues through December 28, 2003 at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.