Frank Wildhorn calls himself a songwriter, as opposed to a supposedly more hifalutin theater composer, and what he means by that distinction is clear on the new CD of Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure, the musical with a score by him that premieres Dec. 5 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Wonderland is a terrific pop album, overflowing with insanely catchy hooks, toe-tapping rock and swelling choruses that you couldn't get out of your head if you wanted to. Of the 15 songs from the show, at least half of them sound like hit singles, and they don't need any theatrical context.
Don't Wanna Fall in Love, One Knight, Once More I Can See, Finding Wonderland — these are just a few of the songs that would fit right into a top 40 countdown. Of course, pop music can be manipulative, shamelessly derivative and loaded with cheap effects, like splashy key changes at every turn. Wildhorn is gleefully guilty on all counts here.
The musical has a dream cast. Janet Dacal, playing a contemporary Alice who is a Manhattan career woman and mother, opens the album with a frenetic rocker about being at the end of her rope, Worst Day of My Life. Dacal also has the range to handle Wildhorn's trademark over-the-top chanteuse style in hyperemotional power ballads like Once More I Can See and Finding Wonderland. Her duets with Alice's White Knight, the sweet-voiced Darren Ritchie, are swoony and funny.
Karen Mason, the cabaret queen of New York, is the Queen of Hearts and has a deliciously brassy big number, Off With Their Heads. As the queen's calculating aide, Nikki Snelson plays the Mad Hatter like a bat out of hell who stops the show with a rousing rocker, The Nick of Time. There's a bouncy salsa flavor to some of the score, and Jose Llana, playing a Latin lover Cheshire Cat, is the show's answer to Ruben Blades in Keep on Dancin'. Eugene Fleming plays the hookah-smoking Zen master who offers Alice Advice From a Caterpillar as she enters Wonderland, a fantasy world beneath Manhattan reachable via a modern-day rabbit hole, an elevator.
Wildhorn and his longtime collaborator, Jeremy Roberts, produced the album at a New York studio. Unfortunately, the skimpy liner notes don't include Jack Murphy's lyrics, which can be quite witty, as in the boy-band anthem White Knight, led by Ritchie as "an outsourced knight so I work freelance."
It's an old saw that musicals aren't written, they're rewritten, and that certainly seems to be true with Wonderland. Many of the songs on the CD were not in the script that was used for the first Actors Equity read-through of the show in March, including some pivotal numbers, such as Alice's defining Worst Day of My Life. The lyrics of Off With Their Heads have been completely changed. The revisions have continued during rehearsals at TBPAC.
Wonderland is full of music perfect for listening to on an iPod or a car CD player. The big question now is if Wildhorn's marvelous pop music will work theatrically and dramatically. We'll find out in a few weeks.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.