NOT-SO-WONDERLAND – YET!

25 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Whenever a musical is so cleverly but shallowly cobbled together for today’s Broadway, it’s hard to concentrate on what we see on stage now, at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Indeed, in the lobby before, in-between and after this brand-new musical’s two acts, that was all anybody talked about: “Hey, you know this show is going to Broadway, right?’ “Did you hear we’re seeing it before Broadway?” And so on. 

Of course, savvy theater veterans know the darker truth, that any show not coming from Broadway is going to Broadway. Wanting to. Trying to. Angling to. Hoping to find the precise combination of acclaim and especially money (which flows from acclaim) to grab a seat at Broadway’s shrunken, star-addicted and Disney-controlled table. In that sense, Wonderland is probably as worthy as the next project. But the world-premiere edition that began in Tampa before moving straight to Houston still has a lot of lonesome highway ahead of it. 

In the beginning, this project sounded like a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and perhaps that would have had legs enough. Frank Wildhorn has a decent track record as a tunesmith for the stage, but never more than (as in Jekyll & Hyde, which also launched with Alley assistance) working with a familiar story – a familiar brand. And if you look at other Wildhorn properties doing this or that, without benefit of Broadway, around the world, you realize the formula seems to work for him. The question, after seeing Wonderland during its first weekend in Houston, is: Does the formula work for us? 

Perhaps as a natural result of starting life as yet another Wildhorn “concept album,” Wonderland works far better as a live concert than as a play. As with a concert, there are a lot of songs. And as with a concert, some are great. Some of just songs. And some we wish would go away. But at the end, we can all say: Wow, what a great concert! And that’s the best we can say right now about Wonderland. As playfully derivative of music genres as Andrew Lloyd Webber at his best (or worst), Wildhorn’s Alice songbook serves up a sexy-steamy-funny brew of Top 40-style hits. Some approach memorability by being catchy, hummable, but almost none move the plot along or deepen our understanding of their character. And those are, we’re told, the two things a song in a stage show is supposed to do. 

The lyrics by regular Wildhorn collaborator Jack Murphy are prosaic beyond belief, the show’s “fun songs” (like the sultry R&B “Advice from a Caterpiller,” the hip-grinding South Beach Latino “Go with the Flow” and the crowd-pleasing boy-band crooner “One Knight”) all based on some ethnic, period or genre cliché. And the “serious” songs never rise above pseudo-motivational psychobabble. Be yourself. Find yourself. Love yourself. These are Homerically ancient themes, of course, but they work best if you have to slay a Cyclops or steer clear of some really sexy sirens on the rocks along the way. While the closing song “Finding Wonderland” seems assembly-line manufactured to be the show’s hit, a far better musical moment goes to someone appearing in a cameo as Lewis Carroll himself. “I Am My Own Invention” offers an insight intriguing enough that we actually care what it says, what it “teaches.” And it is sung by Lewis Carroll, after all. 

The cast of Wonderland is top-notch, sidestepping for all kinds of reasons the usual Alley resident company – who can do almost anything onstage except sing and dance. If anything, this show has too much of both. Janet Dacal shimmers as Alice Cornwinkle, the New York-based writer whose marriage is falling apart and whose daughter’s emotional escape to someplace way, way down her building’s elevator shaft gives what meager story there is its glue. One sidebar about this Wonderland has to be titled “A Star Is Born,” and that star is Janet Dacal.

Other casting highlights include Edward Staudenmayer doubling as the cellphone-obsessed Richard and the time-obsessed Rabbit, and Darren Ritchie as husband Jack, the White Knight and even as Lewis Carroll. Like a lot of things about this show, this style of Freud Lite archetypal casting (the way real people are reborn in an unreal place) feels more like “The Wizard of Oz” than any remembered version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Performing kudos should go to Nikki Snelson as the villainous Mad Hatter and Karen Mason as the ditsy but dangerous Queen of Hearts – except that these characters never make sense between moving from one allegedly show-stopping number to the next.

 The biggest challenge facing Wonderland, which seems destined to delight large audiences in Houston through Feb. 14, is to find a book that makes these songs fit together – and even more importantly, gives them some tension, conflict and forward motion. Some reason for being. The Alley’s Gregory Boyd (who also directs) worked with Murphy on the book, and in its present state, it merely keeps ‘em laughin’ with facile, TV sitcom-grade jokes. The usual mugging at the audience, wink wink, old tale with modern attitude, blah blah. The audience reaction is wild and impressive and may bode well for Broadway; but in this case, the bag you take away from any evening at the theater is empty when you open it at home.

Photo by Michal Daniel. (above) Janet Dacal as Alice in Wonderland; (below) Karen Mason and Nikki Snelson.

 

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