TAMPA — Wonderland is back, and it's bigger and brighter and more boffo than ever. Many of the changes made to the musical based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are definite improvements, as it prepares to bow on Broadway in April.
But the task of matching a coherent adaptation of Lewis Carroll's whimsical classic with Frank Wildhorn's catchy pop-rock score remains elusive. Will it be a hit with New York audiences when, too often, the story makes no sense?
On Wednesday, Wonderland began a series of performances at Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, where it premiered in 2009. Since then the show has been taken up by Broadway producers, along with the Straz Center and other Tampa Bay investors, and upgraded to the tune of $16 million. After its return engagement here, it heads for New York's Marquis Theatre, where previews begin March 21 and the show opens April 17.
I've now seen Wonderland in at least four different versions, including a production in Houston in February, and I think that Wildhorn and his colleagues still have a way to go before it has a chance of success.
Janet Dacal, the Cuban-American redhead who plays Alice as a harried New York writer with a marriage on the rocks, benefits from the revisions that put the focus squarely on her. She seems more womanly, less of a girlish ingenue, and her performance is greatly enhanced by the casting of Carly Rose Sonenclar, 11, as Alice's daughter, Chloe, who runs down the rabbit hole (their building's elevator) to Wonderland, with mom in hot pursuit. The mother-daughter relationship has real emotional power now, and Alice's ballad to the child within, Once More I Can See, is beautifully touching.
However, in an effort to clarify Alice and her relationship to all the crazy characters she meets in Wonderland, the revamped book by director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy resorts to ponderous exposition, such as the White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer) spelling out who Alice is ("This is Alice, she's a writer, and she's losing her grip on reality") in the truncated opening scene.
Later, Alice is told that everything in Wonderland is an extension of her imagination, including the Mad Hatter ("She's your guilt … your cynicism"). Kate Shindle's Hatter, in a purple top hat, is a sinister foil to Alice with a hard-driving new number, I Will Prevail. Shindle is a strong addition to the cast, but her character's story line is burdened with leftovers from earlier versions, such as the "de-braining machine," a Rube Goldberg contraption that is fun but kind of beside the point.
There are adroit touches in the rewrite, such as having Chloe frame the dream story, in her bedroom with a Raggedy Ann doll, snow falling outside, Alice asleep at the end of the bed. At just under 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission, the show bogs down at times, but there's always a terrific song and eye-popping effect around the bend.
If Wednesday's audience is any indication, then Wonderland could make it big, because the response was ecstatic to numbers like Karen Mason's vaudevillian tour de force as the Queen of Hearts, Off With Their Heads, and the swoony harmonies and dance moves of a boy band led by Darren Ritchie, who plays Alice's husband, Jack, and his Wonderland alter-ego, the White Knight. Jose Llana is super cool as El Gato in his salsa duet with Alice, Go With the Flow.
No matter what the pros and cons of the storytelling are, Wonderland is a dazzling experience, its rich visual palate highlighted by Susan Hilferty's costumes (there are quite a few new ones, including kicky Carnaby Street togs for the backup singers in Don't Wanna Fall in Love) and Sven Ortel's lavish video and projection design. Marguerite Derricks' splashy choreography has been toned down, and that makes it even better.
A lot will probably change in Wonderland before its Broadway opening, but the narrative problems have persisted through rewrites by Boyd and Murphy. There might be something inherently undramatic about Carroll's fables, whose beauty is in the wordplay, riddles and charming, nonsensical prose. For all its success at the box office, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp dragged.
But maybe it doesn't matter. Plenty of hit musicals are preposterous when it comes to logic and storytelling. Ever try to sum up the stories of Les Miserables or Wicked in a paragraph or two? Wonderland might be able to get by on its iconic pedigree, infectious music, talented cast and high-tech staging. But I wouldn't count on it.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.