Photo credit: Peter James Zielinski
You know you’re in trouble when the most endearing, magical moments of a musical occur before the curtain ever rises. Much like the looped entertainment news that precedes a movie, Wonderland features a preshow: an invisible hand that slowly sketches the original Tenniel illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland onto a curtain colored like an antique book’s faded page. The soft, swirling movements etch the iconic black and white drawings, allowing the viewer a brief glimpse before the image evaporates in a smoke like wisp. Unfortunately, the effort only reminds you how much more enchanting the original version of Alice’s adventures are.
In this rendition, Alice (Janet Dacal from In the Heights) becomes an overworked inner city schoolteacher and frustrated wannabe children’s book author. Oh, and she’s also on the verge of divorce. As she falls asleep on her daughter’s bed after receiving another publisher’s rejection, she follows a white rabbit into Wonderland and her journey to self-realization begins. She meets the usual characters: the caterpillar (The Scottsboro Boys’ E. Clayton Cornelious), the Cheshire Cat (Jose Llana, portraying a Spanish version as El Gato) and The White Knight (Darren Ritchie). Her initial interactions with Wonderland’s population seem almost like cabaret banter—fluffy and light, and good for a laugh, but not really memorable. For instance, the White Rabbit mutters, “I was not punctual… I was not punctual,” instead of the usual “I’m late” because Disney owns the rights. Quite fun, though, is the nostalgia-infused “One Knight” number that casts The White Knight and his fellow knights as a boy band, clad in tight white pants and appropriating the moves of ’N Sync, BSB, and NKOTB.
The virtuous White Knight becomes Alice’s protector, following her to the infamous tea table where she meets a dominatrix version of the Mad Hatter (a menacing Kate Shindle) who states airily that Alice is not what she expected. “I’m a disappointment to myself, too,” Alice replies. And here’s the crux of the problem: Alice as a self-defeatist (and a bit of a whiner to boot) isn’t exactly an endearing character. Does the audience really care if Alice finds her way? Not really. Even when she snaps out of her melancholy to venture through the looking glass when the Mad Hatter and her henchrabbit, Morris the March Hare, kidnap daughter Chloe, Alice never seems maternal; her rescue mission feels like one more thing an overtaxed working mother should do.
Ultimately, Alice’s evolution into someone who will fight for her dreams, as well as for her daughter, seems too pat. Rather than learning something from her adventures, her epiphany comes from a meeting with The Victorian Gentleman (a thinly veiled Lewis Carroll), who urges her to “always believe in your dreams.” This makes her eventual transformation feel more like a Lifetime movie than offering any real resonance.
The music by Frank Wildhorn (lyrics by Jack Murphy, who also writes the book with Director Gregory Boyd) is serviceable. Although Wildhorn’s past shows Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel produced some power ballads still on the cabaret circuit today, overall the songs in Wonderland don’t linger after the show finishes—although, perhaps, Alice’s solo, “Home,” (later reprised in the second act) might someday join that cabaret rotation. The cast makes the most of the treacly material, though. Karen Mason manages to make you look past the ridiculous Princess Leia like hair braids and heart-shaped wardrobe of the Queen of Hearts to appreciate her underused crystalline voice. Especially good is Carly Rose Sonenclar, as Chloe, who provides the heartfelt vulnerability of a child discovering that the world is not a fairytale.