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Judy Lisi tells of far-reaching disappointment caused by 'Wonderland' flop


Tonight was supposed to be fun for people involved with Wonderland. Oh, nobody was saying the Frank Wildhorn musical might win a Tony Award, but before it opened on Broadway it wasn't unreasonable to expect a nomination or two, perhaps for costumes or set design or lighting. That would have made the Tony telecast interesting for many in the Tampa Bay area, where the $16 million production got its start as a project of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. But it was not to be. Wonderland opened in April to scathing reviews, didn't receive a single Tony nomination and closed in less than a month, a colossal flop. Backers of the show, including a Tampa Bay group that invested more than $3 million, probably lost everything they put into it. "We're feeling a little bruised over here," said Judy Lisi, president of the Straz Center and lead producer of Wonderland.

I spoke with Lisi just over a week ago in her office at the Straz. Since the show's closing on May 15, she had declined my request to conduct a postmortem. She finally agreed to an off-the-record interview, and after we finished, she said I could go ahead and use it for this story.

Lisi, 64, is normally upbeat and positive, and she was much like always when I spoke with her, but the Wonderland debacle has clearly taken a toll. In some ways, the hard work required to get the show to Broadway had given her some relief from a personal tragedy. In November, her 39-year-old daughter, Rachel, died suddenly. Lisi's bio in the Wonderland playbill included a dedication to her.

"For a control freak like me, this has been a hard year," she told me. "I learned that I can't control anything."

Wonderland was the debut of the Broadway Genesis Project, which Lisi had established to turn the Straz into an incubator of Broadway shows, taking advantage of its top-flight facilities and the built-in audience provided by its thriving Broadway series. The musical had two tryout engagements in the center's Ferguson Hall and a run at Houston's Alley Theatre, whose artistic director, Gregory Boyd, directed the musical.

Now Lisi is not sure if the project will continue, even though producers have expressed interest in launching other prospective Broadway shows at the Straz. "I don't know if I could go through this again," she said. "It's not the money. We built in reserves to cover the losses. It's the sweat equity, the amount of time and effort that Wonderland took from the staff here."

A factor in the show going to Broadway was money raised by the Knights of Tampa Bay, an investment group headed by Hinks Shimberg and David Scher, trustees of the Straz. The group put about $3.2 million into the production.

"They were stunned" by the outcome, Lisi said of the Knights. "They really liked the show. They believed in it. I don't know if they would do it again."

The failure of Wonderland was a huge blow to the reputation of Wildhorn, a prolific composer who once had three musicals running simultaneously on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War. His previous show, Dracula, the Musical, which opened in 2004, was a flop, though.

"I'm very sad for Frank," Lisi said. "He's a nice guy, and I think he's a talented songwriter."

Wildhorn has never been a critic's darling. "The publicity people told us that Frank had a bull's-eye on (him)," Lisi said. "We knew that going in. Michael David (a producer of Dracula) warned me that he was poison with critics. But I never thought Frank could get slammed so hard again."

In some ways, the perception of Wonderland never recovered from a drubbing by the New York Post's influential theater columnist, Michael Riedel, who heaped scorn on Wildhorn and dubbed his latest musical "Blunderland" a month before the show began previews.

"There was an undercurrent to the reaction to the show that I just don't understand," Lisi said. "I feel bad for the actors. Some of them were with the show for years. This was an excellent cast. How could the critics find nothing to praise? I think it was the pack mentality of the reviews that disturbed me most."

Wildhorn's future looks bleak, though another new musical by him, Bonnie & Clyde, was unofficially slated to open on Broadway in the fall. Last week the show had an industry reading in New York, with a cast that included Laura Osnes, who gave a sensational performance as Bonnie in a tryout production last year at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. Osnes is now featured in a Broadway revival of Anything Goes.

But will anyone take a chance on another Wildhorn show?

Lisi said a national tour of Wonderland is a possibility, though she had little to say about that. "I'm not producing it," she said. "There is interest (for productions) in Austria and Asia, where they love Frank."

In looking back at the development process of Wonderland, Lisi identified a key decision that she thinks led to things going wrong. It came during the summer of 2009, before the first production in Tampa. Without her knowledge, lyricist and book writer Jack Murphy asked director Boyd to join him as co-author of the book, a persistent problem of the show.

"Greg lost the distance from the story that a director needs to have," she said.

Wonderland went through countless revisions, and it seemed to get worse with each one. For example, in all the previous incarnations of the show, Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts always brought down the house with her witty vaudeville turn, Off With Their Heads. But in New York the number was restaged as a big Vegas-style revue — and fell flat.

Wonderland's boldest casting was of Janet Dacal as Alice, portrayed as a harried New York career woman who takes an elevator to Lewis Carroll's wild and crazy fantasy world beneath the city. A Cuban-American with curly red hair, Dacal was an unorthodox choice for Alice, forever seen as a blond, blue-eyed girl because of the Disney animated film. She needed to be brilliant for the musical to succeed.

Despite reservations about Dacal's vocal stamina, I still enjoyed much of her performance in Tampa and Houston, but her luster faded in New York. She did little dancing, and her role was significantly cut back in the rewriting and restaging of the show, done by (but not credited to) director Scott Ellis and playwright and songwriter Rupert Holmes. Alice seemed like a bystander in her own story. I asked Lisi what happened.

"Well, Janet fell in love and got happy," Lisi said, suggesting that Dacal had lost the laserlike focus that a top-notch performance demands. "There are personal things about a show that you just can't anticipate."

In the one happy ending for Wonderland, Dacal and her co-star Darren Ritchie, who played Alice's husband, Jack, had a storybook backstage romance. After the curtain call of the final performance, Ritchie proposed to her onstage, and Dacal gleefully accepted.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716.

Judy Lisi tells of far-reaching disappointment caused by 'Wonderland' flop 06/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 11:11am]
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