BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
TAMPA — Choreographer Marguerite Derricks thinks in cartoons.
"Your Penelope Pitstop entrance made me fall right in love with you,'' Derricks said to dancer Ashley Galvan during a rehearsal for Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure.
Penelope Pitstop was a TV cartoon character in the 1960s and '70s, and Derricks cited her to describe the movement she wanted from the dancers. They play "Fembots'' — scary-sexy sci-fi figures — in the new Frank Wildhorn musical adapted from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
"I'm really into cartoons these days,'' the choreographer said later. "Yesterday morning I was watching Bugs Bunny. I like to get influences from different things and let my mind spiral from there. I can remember as a child wanting to be Penelope Pitstop. She came right at you. She's my inspiration for the Fembots.''
Derricks' choreography is a key element in Wonderland, a dance-heavy show that is now in previews and opens Saturday. She brings a glittering resume to the production, mainly in film and television, including three Emmy Awards (one for the telecast of opening and closing ceremonies of the 1998 Goodwill Games, performed to Wildhorn's music). She did choreography for all the Austin Powers movies, Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, many music videos (Deborah Harry, Celine Dion, Donna Summer) and swing dancing "Khaki a Go Go'' ads for the Gap.
Derricks, who lives in Los Angeles, was the choreographer for A Class Act, a musical with limited dance that had a short Broadway run in 2001, but she sees Wonderland as an opportunity to showcase her work for a theater audience.
"I've been longing, longing, longing to get to New York,'' she said. "I'm hoping that this project does it for me. It's a playground for a choreographer. I get to do absolutely every style. From ballet to jazz; quirky storytelling; a boy band number; salsa; old-school vaudeville. My fingerprints are all over the show.''
Derricks, born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1961, trained as a ballet dancer and moved to New York City as a young woman to pursue her career. "But I'm 5 foot 3 and don't really look like a ballet dancer,'' she said. Soon she was looking for other dance work and got a call to audition for the TV show Fame, which debuted in 1982.
It was Derricks' big break. She danced on the show for four years and later won an Emmy for her choreography for Fame L.A. She was choreographer for the recent movie remake, which was widely panned but featured strong dancing. Several of the female dancers in the movie are now in Wonderland.
Derricks has a 25-year-old son, Quentin, who was a big Mad Hatter fan as a kid. Now he's a musician in Los Angeles and perhaps his mother's most astute critic.
"A couple of weeks after I got the Wonderland project I found his copy of the Lewis Carroll book on my dressing table,'' she said. "And he had some advice for me: 'Don't get comfortable. Don't rely on your old (dance) vocabulary. Dig deep and work hard.' It was great advice.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.