Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 17, 2011
Wonderland Book by Gregory Boyd & Jack Murphy. Lyrics by Jack Murphy. Music by Frank Wildhorn. Director Gregory Boyd. Choreographer Marguerite Derricks. Supervising Music Director/Incidental & Dance Music arrangements Jason Howland. Set design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Video & projection design by Sven Ortel. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Janet Dacal, Darren Ritchie, E. Clayton Cornelious, Jose Llana, Karen Mason, Kate Shindle, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Edward Staudenmayer, Danny Stiles, April Berry, Grady McLeod Bowman, Joey Claveri, Sae La Chin, Mallauri Esquibel, Derek Ferguson, Wilkie Ferguson III, Laura Hall, Natalie Hill, Lauren Lim Jackson, Morgan James, Ryan Link, Kate Loprest, Renee Marino, Heather Parcells, Stefan Raulston, Julius Anthony Rubio, Tanairi Sade Vazquez.
Wonderland, however, sabotages any claim to life whenever a performer speaks or sings. It's conceivable that librettist-director Boyd, librettist-lyricist Murphy, and composer Wildhorn have a satisfactory idea in a contemporary American woman (coincidentally named Alice), dreaming about falling down an elevator shaft into a realm that fuses Lewis Carroll's magical universe and an urban theme park. But bereft of common sense, care, and intelligence, the only thing it can ever be is annoying.
The trouble starts immediately, with a particularly perfunctory setup. Alice (Janet Dacal), a rejected children’s book author newly separated from her husband, is spending her first night alone with their daughter, Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar), and tormented by dad’s mother, Edwina (Karen Mason), who has the unmitigated gall to pick up Chloe from school and then make dinner for all three of them. Of course, Edwina becomes the head-hungry Queen of Hearts down below, but she’s not the real villain in the underworld. That would be the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle), a high-belting, low-necklined opportunist with her sights set on the Queen’s throne, and willing to do whatever it takes — including or especially stepping on the bewildered Alice and her daughter — to ascend.
Joining Alice’s fight against the Hatter and the sneering March Hare (Danny Stiles) are an indifferent White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer); a funk-minded and -voiced Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious); a Latino Cheshire Cat unaware he can no longer turn himself invisible, here called El Gato and played by Jose Llana; and the obligatory love interest, Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), who’s longing for an impossible quest and an, ahem, “snuggle bunny” to be the object of his Boy Band–stardom fantasies.
That's no joke, by the way. Jack’s entrance involves him and four compatriots performing the vapid “One Knight,” complete with hand-wringing choreography (by Marguerite Derricks) and lounge-lush vocal stylings too insipid to ever cross the lips of genuine N*Sync-ers or Backstreet Boys. Other songs, ranging from the ghetto-boy reject “Advice From a Caterpillar” to the watery salsa of El Gato’s “Go With the Flow” and the Queen’s opening extravaganza that pays lame tribute to real musicals like Gypsy, South Pacific, and Evita, are hardly better. The closest thing to an effective musical moment is “I Am My Own Invention,” which Alice sings with Carroll (don’t ask) about the ways we sketch out the stories of our lives.
Wildhorn, who’s best known for Jekyll & Hyde and not better known because of The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War, and the musical Dracula, has composed neither his usual thrilling-to-hear power ballads, nor even any memorable tunes. Murphy’s lyrics stick in the ear for all the wrong reasons: Hammerstein's, Porter's, Hart's, and Sondheim's posterity have nothing to fear from “Low tea, high tea / Drink your own but don’t drink my tea”, “Home is where you keep / Your hopes and memories / It’s more than where you sleep / It’s the place where you dream”, and “I remember living in between / What was real and what was not / ‘neath a sky of blue and field of green / I long ago forgot.” Murphy and Boyd’s book is threadbare and uninvolving, packed with hackneyed plotting that piles on more literalisms and metaphors than a parody of a bad English graduate thesis.
Dacal floods her portrayal with bulging-eyed reactions and her handful of solos with a capable if screechy belt. But her utter lack of warmth makes her a difficult central figure, especially when every scene and song revolves around her. With writing that makes caring a challenge, compelling, original When the writing keeps you from caring about anything, unique and compelling characterizations are vital. Dacal’s bringing the same sauciness to this role that she did the blabby salongoer in In the Heights is not a winning strategy.
But with a show like this, what can be? Carroll and Tenniel's joint work on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass may have been to effect sweeping satire of Victorian England, but they were more than compost heaps of focus group–friendly notions. They had their fun and poked their fun, but also succeeded as rollicking, family-ready tales because they never lost sight of their goal or the language they'd use to get there. In this way, as in so many others, Wonderland does not have a clue.