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Alice By Heart

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 26, 2019

Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan
Photo by Deen van Meer

It seems incomprehensible a new musical with a score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater could be a tedious, incoherent mess, but, sadly, Alice By Heart is such a musical. As the inaugural production in Andrew Berman's beautiful Newman Mills Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in Hell's Kitchen, the individual pieces of Alice By Heart appear promising. Set in 1941 London at the height of the Blitz, the premise of Alice (now a young woman) revisiting Wonderland in her imagination in an attempt to stave off the death of a young man she loves holds promise. The cast is attractive and fully committed to the material, the production's design team appears first-rate, and Sheik and Sater are joined by Jessie Nelson (Waitress) as the show's director and co-book writer. And yet, the pieces simply don't fit.

Originally commissioned by The National Theatre in London in 2011, Alice By Heart has been kicking around for years with workshops as long ago as 2012 in London, and as recently as last summer at the New York Stage and Film & Vassar at The Powerhouse Theater. Nelson and Sater have envisioned a story wherein the budding Alice Spencer (a plaintive Molly Gordon) finds herself sharing an Underground tube with shell-shocked and war-weary denizens, when her dear friend Alfred Hallam (the handsome Colton Ryan) is brought in suffering from tuberculosis. Dying, he is separated from the others and Alice is determined to save his life by reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to him, a story they loved and acted out together in childhood.

Scene by scene and song by song, the people sharing the Underground tube with Alice and Alfred morph into the famous, anthropomorphic characters in Lewis Carroll's seminal, 1865 story as Alice takes Alfred (as the White Rabbit) into Wonderland again for one last ‘golden afternoon.' If you've forgotten those characters, MCC has provided a handy insert in your Playbill that conveniently lists them, but it's not enough. Nelson and Sater's libretto mistakenly assumes a high degree of familiarity with Carroll's work that simply doesn't exist, particularly with American audiences. Its dense and complicated storytelling, and it flies by at a rapid pace. Alice and her Wonderland friends frequently quote Carroll's original text but you won't know it unless you've written a doctoral thesis on Carroll's nonsensical works.

Musically, Alice By Heart is equally troubling. Sheik and Sater's songs, all 20 of them, are tuneful, but they're also surprisingly repetitive and, unfortunately, derivative. Song after song sounds suspiciously familiar and it's impossible to delete the cast recording of Spring Awakening, the duo's most famous and award-winning collaboration, from your head as the songs in Alice By Heart wash over you. It's not a pleasure to report that nothing in Alice comes close to Awakening, either lyrically or melodically. In fact, many of Sater's lyrics in Alice are clunky or head scratching. Other problems with the production include wildly inconsistent British accents that come and go with alarming frequency, particularly when anyone starts singing. And the fact that everyone is over-amplified to a ridiculous degree. In a wonderful, intimate space like MCC's new home, the cast doesn't need to be amplified at all if the 7-member orchestra were amplified properly. But every time someone starts singing you can literally hear someone cranking up their body mic at the soundboard.

Ultimately, Alice By Heart, despite its terrific set by Edward Pierce, inventive costumes courtesy of Paloma Young, atmospheric lighting by Bradley King, and a hardworking cast runs out of steam long before its conclusion. In its final moments, Alice sings: "Nothing comes or goes without a shadow. Somewhere in the soul you hold the candle. Let the sorrow go, it's half the battle." Really? If that's all she learned on her journey it's a wonder Alice bothered to take the trip at all.

Alice By Heart
Through April 7
Newman Mills Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: mcctheater.org

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