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'Wonderland' musical to launch in Tampa, with eye on Broadway

Well, when one's lost, I suppose it's good advice to stay where you are until someone finds you. But who'd ever think to look for me here?

Alice in Wonderland

TAMPA — Alice, we have a new question for you: Who would think to look in Tampa for Broadway's next big musical production?

The answer, so hopes the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, is the theater-going public. The center will announce today that Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure will open on Dec. 5 and run through Jan. 3, 2010, with the expectation that it would then transfer to Broadway.

It's a prestigious, potentially profitable deal for an institution to premiere a show that makes it to Broadway, especially if it goes on to become a hit. New York theater producers would like to have a Florida venue for tryouts. TBPAC, with its large Broadway series subscription base and first-rate technical facilities, could be a good launching pad.

"We want the center to be a place where productions for Broadway will be developed," said Judith Lisi, president of TBPAC, which is producing the show through its Broadway Genesis Project. "I'm hoping our audience will be excited to see new work."

Wonderland is an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic, with music by Frank Wildhorn. Set in Manhattan, it tells the story of author Alice Cornwinkle, who is struggling with her career and her daughter, Chloe.

"The essence of our version of this story is about the child within, and what happens if you lose the child within," said Wildhorn in a promotional video provided by TBPAC. "Here's a title that is just screaming to be done, but done in a new way.''

Lisi, who likens the show's potential appeal to young women to that of the smash Wicked, first saw performances of several numbers from Wildhorn's show in 2007. Then called Alice, it was workshopped at the Broadway Theatre Project, the program held every summer at the University of South Florida.

"I think this is a show that could do some pretty wonderful things," said Debra McWaters, artistic director of the project. "The story is just as clever as can be, and Frank's got some killer music. I think Frank has broken into a place that he hasn't been before with this score."

In 1999, Wildhorn had three shows on Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War. Though the shows had good runs, they received lukewarm reviews at best.

On Wonderland, Wildhorn is joined by lyricist Jack Murphy, who wrote lyrics for The Civil War; and director Gregory Boyd, who worked with the composer on Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War and Svengali (which premiered at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota in 1991). The book writer is Phoebe Hwang.

Wildhorn has Florida ties, having moved to Hollywood from New York at 14. He went to the University of Miami before transferring to the University of Southern California. He got his start as a pop songwriter and wrote Where Do Broken Hearts Go for Whitney Houston.

A concept album of Wonderland is planned this summer, a strategy that Wildhorn followed with Jekyll & Hyde, which ultimately had three recordings.

Lisi puts the cost of the musical for TBPAC at $3 million. She hopes the Tampa tryout will attract other investors.

"We have a lot riding on it," Lisi said. "But we've budgeted very conservatively."

The show will be part of the center's 2009-10 Broadway series, which is one of the country's largest, with 9,000 subscribers. It will be performed in Ferguson Hall, which seats 1,000 and is considerably smaller than the center's 2,500-seat Morsani Hall, where touring shows play. The Ferguson stage is closer to the size of most Broadway theaters than Morsani's is.

Individual tickets for Wonderland will go on sale Aug. 16.

Lisi has been positioning the center to pursue this sort of project since it became an independent presenter of Broadway tours two years ago, severing ties with the national promoter Broadway Across America, which now has a small series at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

Several Broadway tours were mounted at the center in the past, including English producer Cameron Mackintosh's revival of My Fair Lady in 2007. "Cameron was thrilled with his experience here," Lisi said, "and it's not easy to make him thrilled."

There was one Broadway show that premiered at TBPAC, a musical about Teddy Roosevelt called Teddy & Alice, which opened the year the center opened, in 1987. It made it to Broadway but closed after just 77 performances.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

'Wonderland' musical to launch in Tampa, with eye on Broadway 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 6:31am]

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