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Revamped 'Wonderland' is a musical still in need of a story

Tommar Wilson plays the Caterpillar and Janet Dacal is Alice.

Special to the Times

Tommar Wilson plays the Caterpillar and Janet Dacal is Alice.

HOUSTON

Wonderland remains a work in progress, despite some heavy lifting by the creative team between the show's premiere in Tampa in December at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and the opening here at the Alley Theatre. There are several new songs, other numbers that were in the Tampa staging have been cut or moved around, and the book has been reworked to try to clarify Alice's quest to balance her roles as wife, mother and children's book author with a case of writer's block.

In some ways, the musical (which no longer has the subtitle "Alice's New Musical Adventure'') is improved, but there are also changes that make it worse. Basically, a focused, convincing story continues to elude Frank Wildhorn (music), Jack Murphy (book and lyrics) and director Gregory Boyd (book).

I was at the Jan. 20 opening, which got a rousing reception from the virtually sold-out Alley audience, which cheered the loudest for the same numbers that went over big in Tampa. Crowd-pleasers included Go With the Flow and One Knight, prime examples of Wildhorn's gift for infectious pop, and the incomparable Karen Mason's vaudeville turn as the Queen of Hearts, Off With Their Heads!

As Alice, Janet Dacal has sharpened the screwball comedy of her performance in a way that reminds me of another redhead, the young Lucille Ball, with a touch of Cyd Charisse's elegant dancing. But the impact of Alice's lovely ballad Once More I Can See has been lost by shifting it to the second act, though the sentiment of the song may work better there.

The elements of the show that were strongest in Tampa — choreographer Marguerite Derricks' dance numbers and the costume design by Susan Hilferty — are still terrific in Houston. The conspicuous weaknesses, such as Nikki Snelson's Mad Hatter (and her unflattering costume, a rare misstep by Hilferty), remain problematic.

If Wonderland is to have a future beyond Houston, I'm beginning to think, the Hatter ought to be completely reconceived, much as I admire Snelson's talent. By making the character so different from Lewis Carroll's original in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass — Wildhorn likens his Hatter to rock diva Pink — the show risks alienating diehard Alice fans.

I am not acquainted with Wildhorn's writing process, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he wrote Snelson's two big songs, The Mad Hatter and Nick of Time, and others before there was much of a book, leaving Murphy and Boyd (and Phoebe Hwang, the first book writer) to work around them. In fact, this may suggest a root cause of the show's problems, that most of the songs were composed first, and then it was up to the director and book writers to fashion an adaptation. Wildhorn's songs can be wonderfully hummable and fun, but individually they don't really advance the story, a fatal flaw in musical theater.

Tellingly, the strongest representation of Wonderland is still the version that Wildhorn and producer Jeremy Roberts recorded with the cast in a New York studio last summer and released on CD before the show opened in Tampa. It's a fine collection of pop music, but that doesn't necessarily translate into success on stage. None of the new songs in the Houston production are as catchy as the original ones, such as the cut Don't Wanna Fall in Love, which always fell flat dramatically in Tampa but had some of Murphy's wittiest lyrics.

Oddly, Wonderland squanders its greatest asset, Wildhorn's melodies, by not recycling them throughout the show. Perhaps he should incorporate some reprises of memorable themes to bring coherence to the score.

The flashy production values that sometimes were overwhelming in the Straz's Ferguson Hall seem toned down for the Alley, a slightly smaller venue, with fewer than 900 seats. Sven Ortel's video projections in particular are less distracting than in Tampa, where viewing the show could feel like being trapped in a video game. Paul Gallo's high-powered lighting design is even more effective. Because the Alley's seating is raked at an angle to the stage, you can see more easily the striking patterns of light on the floor.

The major thrust of the rewrite has been to build up Alice's relationship with her husband, Jack (Darren Ritchie), and their daughter, Chloe (Julie Brooks). The show has a new opening scene among the threesome that quickly establishes their dysfunction before launching into Alice's Worst Day of My Life.

Still more needs to be done on this family front by Wildhorn and company, but so far the chief beneficiary of the changes is Ritchie, whose performance (and character) has grown a lot since Tampa. Together, a new song in Act 2, is essentially a sequel to his show-stopping boy-band number in the first act. The rewrite also seeks to make Alice's journey more of a dream — she's struck by lightning, which is supposed to begin her fantasy, though I'm not certain it registered as such on the audience — and she has a new song, Down the Rabbit Hole, as she takes the elevator down to Wonderland.

One big change is that Jack, instead of the Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer), dies near the end of the show, and the staging of that event is hopeless, with Alice seeming not to know quite what to do. Did Boyd direct Dacal at all in this new scene? The rewrite also somehow diminishes the Rabbit's role throughout the performance, and the excellent Staudenmayer makes a less interesting impression than he did in Tampa.

Critic Everett Evans, in his mixed review for the Houston Chronicle, also had problems with the book and found the writing pedestrian.

Rewriting a musical must be like breaking up a relationship. Wildhorn, Murphy and Boyd seem fixated on the connection between Carroll and Alice. In an early version of the book, she was a descendant of Alice Liddell, Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. The scene in which Alice and the writer have a communal moment, I Am My Own Invention, is a touching number, featuring ballerina Mallauri Esquibel. But it comes out of the blue and is at odds with the rest of the show. Can they figure out a way to work it in or cut it and still have a musical with heart? I'm not sure they can.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com.

REVIEW

Revamped 'Wonderland' is a musical still in need of a story 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 3:30am]
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