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Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Tim Connell and Cast Members
Photo by Peter Welch

"Ambitious" seems such a tame adjective to apply to Speakeasy (or, to be more precise, Speakeasy: John And Jane's Adventures In The Wonderland), the new musical at the Theater for the New City. But how else to describe a show that boasts a cast of 23 who perform 40 songs over the course of an evening that runs close to four hours?

So "ambitious" it is, and in sore need of reining in. Yet within its massive sprawl, there lies an intriguing tale of queer life during the Roaring 20s, when a growing rush of freedom coincided with efforts to quash that freedom.

Writer/composer/lyricist Danny Ashkenasi has drawn heavily from Lewis Carroll's timeless classics, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, to shape the story of a newly married couple, John (Matias Polar) and Jane (Kayleigh Shuler), as they fall into parallel dreams in which they begin to explore their repressed same-sex attraction. Many of the characters from the "Alice" books appear in one guise or another as the two protagonists wend their way to the Wonderland Speakeasy and the great drag ball that is the centerpiece of the evening.

John and Jane are each accompanied, wooed, and eventually bedded by popular gay entertainers. Jane's companion is Duchess Bentley (Camille Atkinson), a tuxedo-clad Harlem nightclub owner and singer. John's is Julian Carnation (Tim Connell), a drag artist. Both of these guides, based on actual performers of the time, are quite open about their sexuality, at least within the limits permitted by virtue of their public personae.

The Duchess and Julian, along with their many friends and acquaintances, represent the circle of gay life to which John and Jane are drawn. On the other side, we have the likes of Dean Kitteridge (Brian Michael Henry) and Caroline Chrysalides (Darcy Dunn), members of the Temperance Union and self-appointed overseers of morality. They pop up from time to time to shake a finger, badger, or coerce the others into conforming to their personal sense of decency.

Pretty much every character has time in the spotlight and gets to sing one or more of the composer's tunes that draw from the era's hit parade, jazz, operetta, vaudeville, and other sources, including Marc Blitzstein's Brechtian political satire, The Cradle Will Rock. The score is in the hands of the talented music director and pianist, Jonathan Fox Powers, with some of the cast members periodically joining in on various instruments.

It is difficult to capture all of the head-spinning plot threads that unfold through the show's many set pieces and songs, but the connection with Lewis Carroll remains pretty firm throughout, including direct references to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Lobster Quadrille, the Mad Tea Party, and the Lion and the Unicorn. The Cheshire Cat appears in the form of the evening's master of ceremonies, popular crooner Chet Cheshire (Bri Molloy).

Director Lissa Moira, choreographer J. Alan Hanna, and the large cast do an amazing job keeping everything rolling along in this theatrical equivalent of a three-ring circus. Production values are at the low end budget-wise, but you can imagine the vision Mr. Ashkenasi has in his mind of the show as an all-out extravaganza. It is, however, hard to picture a life for Speakeasy beyond this production, until and unless someone finds a way to shrink it down to size (a bottle marked "Drink Me," perhaps?) and to winnow the number of scenes and songs to something more manageable. See it now only if you are willing to surrender yourself to the rabbit hole.

Through March 13
Theater For the New City Joyce and Seward Johnson Theater, 155 First Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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