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Alice in Wonderland

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Zoe Frazer, Maxine Dannatt, and Theo Klein.
Photo by Sara Brown.

I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I had heard the term "Jabbawockeez" before when a dance troupe of the same name emerged the victor on America's Best Dance Crew last month. I reconnected to the source with Brainerd Duffield's theatrical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, currently running at The Philip Coltoff Center. And although the name actually borrows from Carroll's "Jabberwocky", a poem featured in his novel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the allusion is fitting because Duffield's version of Alice borrows from the novel as well. His merging of the two works of literary nonsense brings a lot of clarity and fun to the genre. But he couldn't have done it without the wonderful cast.

When we first see Alice (Zoe Frazer), we immediately know that this tale has been updated by the rap music blasting through her Ipod shuffle. Although the contemporary music may resonate with today's kids, it still rings false. Instead of her sister, Alice has a stuffed cat companion, and engages it in conversation as one would expect a 7 and one-half year old to do. However, imagining Frazer as a youngster is a challenge. Though the character Alice is logical, wiser than her years, and is often portrayed by an older actress, Frazer is a very mature Alice, lacking the softness and eagerness of a child. It doesn't help that this Alice is also made hip by her electronic gadgets and musical tastes. She does, however, handle the constantly changing setting and choreography very well under Stephen Michael Rondel's tight direction.

When Alice falls asleep, she meets White Rabbit (the wonderful Juliette Crellin), a fraidy, agitated character always on the run. Alice gives chase, and falls down the hatch into Wonderland. Daniella Rabbani's concept of "falling down the hatch" is superb. It requires strong execution and trust among the cast, with gravity-defying lifts and tricks that are delightful to everyone in attendance, children and adults. With the exception of a clunky tree sequence, Rabbani's movements are great, tailored to the children and adults in the cast. The ever changing set design by Gregg Bellon, comprised mostly of rolling dividers, are practical and exhibit Margeaux Lucas' illustrations well.

We follow Alice as she meets the Queen of Hearts (Maxine Dannatt), a severe 7th grader clad in an expanding Queen of Hearts card. She is every bit as petulant as you would expect this heartless queen to be. In fact, Alice in Wonderland is full of great concepts, but the 3-tiered Head Caterpillar with the commanding Michelle Matlock (of Mammy Project fame) on top and Charlotte Williams and Theo Klein in the middle and bottom, respectively, is the most impressive. Matlock handles all of the big personalities well, with a booming voice and personality that is prime for children's stories.

What is so remarkable about this show is that the adults are having just as much fun as the kids. Although J.T. Michael Taylor plays four roles that are all memorable, his Frog Footman and Humpty add an extra sparkle to an already dazzling production. He never patronizes his younger co-stars, and hits every step and line of dialogue with enthusiasm. The youthful Adam R. Deremer is also versatile and exciting. His Mouse is magical, maneuvering the oversized puppet in such a manner that it shows Mark Salinas' work in the best possible light. An unexpected choice for White Queen, his antsy performance is spot on, even if there's no attempt at a falsetto. Although each of the child actors make their mark, Charlotte Williams seems to be having a ball with the Chesire cat. She finds the humor and cuteness in this feline symbol, purring and meowing in between dialogue.

Alice in Wonderland may be a piece of cake for a child's imagination, but the task of bringing it to life and to the stage is complex. With 12 of the original characters presented and a handful of new ones, there is a lot of activity, mayhem, and changes to absorb. Luckily, the kids in the show are able to handle it with professionalism and grace. There's nothing like the cackle of a child (like the one sitting a row before me) to communicate the success of a children's show. And if a child still lives inside you, you won't be able to resist it, either.

Alice In Wonderland
Through May 25
Philip Coltoff Center Main Stage, 219 Sullivan Street between West 3rd and Bleecker
Ages: Recommended for Ages 4 and up.
Performances: Fri 7:00 pm, Sat 3:00 pm, Sat 7:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm, Sun 7:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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