TAMPA — Lewis Carroll was a great one for riddles in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, such as "Why is a raven like a writing desk?'' That riddle doesn't have an answer, and neither does this one at the moment: Can Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure make it to Broadway? And more important: Can it be a hit there?
The new musical, a contemporary spin on Carroll's surreal saga from Victorian England, is loaded with talent onstage, and the Frank Wildhorn score boasts one insanely catchy pop song after another. The show is a visual feast, with dazzling costumes, marvelously funky dance and a flashy, high-tech production design.
But Wonderland also has a problem: It makes almost no sense. The book needs a major rewrite, and not just a tweak here and there. What Wildhorn and his colleagues — director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy, co-authors of the book — or somebody else can do to bring at least a measure of dramatic logic to the musical will ultimately decide its fate.
For now, though, Tampa Bay audiences can revel in the boffo production, which had its world premiere Saturday night in Ferguson Hall of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. As a milestone on the area's arts landscape, it is a triumph for the center, which produced the $3.3 million show as the initial effort of its Broadway Genesis Project.
One of the most thrilling things about Wonderland is to witness a star in the making in Janet Dacal's performance as Alice. In this version of Carroll's oft-adapted books, she's a best-selling author in New York with an overdue manuscript and a failing marriage who goes down the rabbit hole (the elevator in her Central Park West apartment building) in pursuit of her 10-year-old daughter, Chloe (Julie Brooks). She winds up in a madcap world that resembles a video game, with much credit (or blame) for its remarkable look going to Sven Ortel's video and projection design.
Dacal, a willowy Cuban-American with curly red hair, doesn't look like the Alice in the book, and that is one of the show's charms, as is her screwball comic timing. She has a charismatic stage presence, and her dancing is terrific, deftly showcased by choreographer Marguerite Derricks in numbers such as Go With the Flow, an exhilarating salsa for Alice and the Latino Cheshire Cat, El Gato (Jose Llana), and Don't Wanna Fall in Love, a bubblegum rocker with her husband, Jack (Darren Ritchie), that has some of Murphy's wittiest lyrics. Dacal's strongest singing is in Once More I Can See, a classic Wildhorn power ballad, but her voice has a tendency to go off pitch at the top of her register in the finale, Finding Wonderland.
As winning as Dacal is, Alice is not persuasive as a kind of cross between a stressed-out career woman and plucky Disney ingenue. It's hard to feel involved in her family woes — there's never any doubt things will work out in the end — and writer's block is no theme for a musical.
The opening number, set at an uppity literary party, is splendid to look at, with designer Susan Hilferty's chic black and silver costumes. But it labors mightily to get the heroine — feeling under-dressed in her simple red outfit and having the Worst Day of My Life — from Manhattan to Wonderland.
The conceptual issue at hand here is that characters in Alice's real life later turn up in her fantasy. For example, her agent Richard becomes the neurotic, frazzled Rabbit (the excellent Edward Staudenmayer), and arts patron Mrs. Everheart is transformed into the daffy, oblivious Queen of Hearts (the inimitable Karen Mason, who enlivens every scene she's in). Well, the same concept worked for the movie The Wizard of Oz, to which Wonderland owes a heavy debt. Chloe has a sweet little song called Home with sentiments uncomfortably close to Dorothy's famous declaration upon returning from Oz that there's no place like Kansas.
To complicate matters way too much, Alice is a descendant of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Carroll. The staging includes vintage photos of the 19th century pair. Alice even has an Act 2 encounter with the writer (Ritchie), who delivers a solemn aria called I Am My Own Invention. All this appears to be an attempt to give the show emotional depth — "To be once more a shining child,'' Alice sings — but it is totally out of place, like dropping a scene from one of Wildhorn's Gothic pop operas into Legally Blonde. The number does feature a graceful dream ballet danced by Mallauri Esquibel.
Wonderland has a wonderful cast. Mason, decked out in Hilferty's extraordinary costume for the Queen of Hearts, and her three backup singers stop the show with a hilarious vaudeville number, Off With Their Heads! Ritchie's finest moment is as Alice's White Knight in polo pants, making like Justin Timberlake in the boy band spoof/homage One Knight. Another tour de force is Tad Wilson's Jabberwock, a hairy, blood-soaked ogre who is Misunderstood "just because I like to cook the people I meet.''
A casualty of the misconceived book is the Mad Hatter, the Queen's villainous, book-burning prime minister and archrival of Alice. Nikki Snelson kicks out the jams with the slinky, pelvis-thrusting Fembot dancers, but her high-energy numbers fall flat because the story is so preposterous. Llana's El Gato and the jazzy Caterpillar of Tommar Wilson have great solos to introduce Alice to Wonderland, but then have little to do the rest of the show.
You leave Wonderland wowed by the production values. Neil Patel designed a burnished silver proscenium, and his set pieces glide in and out with silken efficiency. Paul Gallo's lighting bathes the performance in richly complex colors and patterns — especially striking in two numbers with twirling umbrellas. At times Ortel's video projections work (the sun and a flock of birds) and other times they leave a bloated effect (Alice's elevator ride to Wonderland goes on too long). For Alice purists, video renditions of the iconic John Tenniel illustrations are projected on the opening scrim. Greg Anthony conducted the orchestra.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.