NEW YORK — A musical that doesn't really know its central character is in trouble. That has always been the problem with Wonderland, which opened Sunday on Broadway, the destination of a long, winding road that began in 2009, when the show was developed and premiered at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
Alice, the hero played by Janet Dacal in Frank Wildhorn's musical, started out as a descendant of Alice Liddell, the muse of Lewis Carroll for his fanciful classics, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
The Liddell angle was scrapped, but in all the previous stagings (two in Tampa, one in Houston) Alice was a children's book author with writer's block in Manhattan, getting divorced from her husband, struggling to connect with their daughter.
Now, in the Broadway version, Alice is a teacher living in Queens, working in the Bronx. Her daughter, Chloe, is still around, but her husband, Jack, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Alice's mother-in-law is on the scene.
Eventually, a lot of the elements familiar to veteran Wonderland watchers turn up again in this latest incarnation, but Wildhorn and his collaborators — director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy, both credited with the book — have failed to bring coherence to the story. Some of the changes work, some of them don't, but many seem so arbitrary that you wonder what the point could ever be.
In earlier versions, Alice opened the show with a rocking Worst Day of My Life, and Chloe's signature number was the sweet little melody, Home. Here, they switch the songs, as if it doesn't really matter which character sings them. It's a telling sign of the book's confusion.
To be sure, Wonderland has a lot going for it, as I've said in other reviews. The production at the Marquis Theatre is visually striking, highlighted by Susan Hilferty's wildly inventive costume design. Wildhorn's pop score is chock full of exhilarating numbers, such as the salsa-flavored Go With the Flow, featuring Jose Llana as El Gato, a Latino Cheshire Cat, and Karen Mason's vaudeville turn as the daffy Queen of Hearts, Off With Their Heads (Mason also plays the mother-in-law). Darren Ritchie, playing the White Knight (and Jack, who appears at the end), leads a couple of sensational boy-band songs, One Night and Together.
Dacal, the Cuban-American ingenue who has led the cast from the beginning, remains an appealing, offbeat presence, and her ballad Once More I Can See is a gem, but she has limitations as a singer. Finding Wonderland, Alice's defining song that closes the show, requires a bigger voice. And some of her comic, kooky charm has been lost in New York.
Wonderland needs an amazing, fully realized performance by its star, but too often, probably because of the ramshackle script, Dacal's Alice seems like an observer in her own story.
It's no wonder that Alice doesn't come together as a character, because she is basically a cipher in Carroll's books, which have resisted adaptation in ballet, opera and even the recent Tim Burton movie. The musical never finds a persuasive narrative for her, though the revised dialogue is full of wisecracks. The White Knight's deadpan political putdown of the Mad Hatter's tea party as a "mean-spirited bunch of bullies'' gets a big laugh.
The show's rival bunnies, Edward Staudenmayer's White Rabbit and Danny Stiles as Morris the March Hare, deliver some of the funniest lines. Carly Rose Sonenclar, the 11-year-old playing Chloe, is an adorable little scene stealer. Llana's El Gato has been filled out with shtick about the Cheshire Cat being invisible (not). The Mad Hatter is problematic, but Kate Shindle looks great in a purple top hat and kicks out the jams in a pair of numbers that fill the stage with billowing clouds of smoke, The Mad Hatter and I Will Prevail.
Marguerite Derrick's choreography has been toned down to good effect — the slinky, over-the-top "fembots'' of earlier stagings barely register now — and is especially strong in Welcome to Wonderland, with its kick line of Alices, and Advice From a Caterpillar, performed by E. Clayton Cornelious and six splendid dancers as his mustard-green, bespectacled "legs.'' Projected onto Neil Patel's imposing set, Sven Ortel's video design dominates the production, which has been skewed toward a family audience, and there were plenty of kids at the Saturday previews I attended.
The one thing fans of the Carroll books are likely to enjoy are the original illustrations by John Tenniel projected on the stage curtain.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.