Published Nov. 27, 2009|Updated Nov. 27, 2009

This week brings the biggest production of the year at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center). Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure is a contemporary take on Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In a twist befitting the Mad Hatter herself (in this version, it's a she), the multimillion-dollar production is debuting in Tampa; producers hope it will eventually move to Broadway and crash the Tony Awards. The show's official debut is next weekend, but preview performances started this week. If you go, here's what you need to know about Wonderland.- John Fleming

The story

The idea of basing a musical on Carroll's iconic books was kicked around by composer Frank Wildhorn and his colleagues for years. The appeal is obvious: Not only are the stories in the public domain, but they are utterly familiar and beloved. "They're the most quoted literature, they tell us, besides the Bible and Shakespeare," said director Gregory Boyd. "Down the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser. Off with their heads. Six impossible things before breakfast. All those phrases known by everybody." In Wonderland, Alice is a children's book author in 21st century Manhattan, a woman in her 30s on the verge of a breakdown - her career is floundering, her marriage is failing and she fears she is losing her 10-year-old daughter. In pursuit of her daughter, she winds up in Wonderland underneath Manhattan. There, people in her real life turn up as Carroll's characters, much like Dorothy's people from Kansas in The Wizard of Oz.

The music

Wildhorn started out as a pop songwriter and has composed hits such as Where Do Broken Hearts Go for Whitney Houston and This Is the Moment from his first Broadway musical, Jekyll & Hyde. Judging from the catchy, hook-laden songs on the Wonderland concept album released this month, he has written a pure pop score, more like the bubble-gum rock of Legally Blonde and Hairspray than the pop opera of his own Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. "This particular show lets me go back to my roots in the 1980s, when my bread was buttered by the pop industry," he said. "If a song wasn't infectious, it wasn't going to do anything."

The star

One thing that sets Wonderland apart from other takes on the Carroll books is its heroine. She is played by Janet Dacal, a willowy Cuban-American with curly red hair. Her appearance is a far cry from the usual blond, blue-eyed Alice. Wildhorn and company considered other Broadway ingenues, but they were knocked out by Dacal's audition last spring. At the time, she was playing Carla, the ditsy hairdresser's assistant in In the Heights on Broadway. "We just fell in love with her," Boyd says. "She's a true triple threat, a great dancer, a great singer and a very winning personality. She has a modern young woman's sensibility." Says Dacal: "It's mind blowing that somebody trusts you so much."

The costumes

Susan Hilferty, who designed the 100 or so costumes for Wonderland, is one of Broadway's top costume designers, having dreamed up the clothes for hundreds of productions, including Wicked, for which she won a Tony. Even before Wonderland came along, Hilferty knew Carroll's books extremely well, because she has often used them in graduate design seminars she teaches at NYU. "The Alice story makes a great project for a designer because it is so metaphorically rich," she said. Wonderland opens with a party at which Alice arrives feeling inadequate - and, in a simple red wrap dress, totally underdressed. The other people at the party all show up in Wonderland, but they're distorted. For example, presiding over the party is a literary doyenne named Mrs. Everheart who later becomes the Queen of Hearts, costumed to spectacular effect. "She looks like a deck of cards, like a high-fashion, exploded deck of cards," Hilferty said. Eric Winterling, whose company built most of the costumes, estimated that it took 325 hours to make the Queen's costume. "These costumes are as sumptuous as they look," Hilferty said. "It's exactly what they do with haute couture."

The bottom line

"We've got a lot riding on this," said Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz Center. Initially, the Wonderland production was budgeted at $3 million; now she is projecting its cost at about $3.3 million. Lisi hopes Wonderlandwill generate about $2 million in ticket sales, with a good part of that already booked. The center will also receive income from Houston's Alley Theater, where the show plays in January and February. "So let's say we're out $1 million," Lisi says. "We would hope to recoup that from subsequent productions of Wonderland, be it on Broadway or a tour or whatever." Wonderland's fate - and the center's investment - will depend on the musical's reception from critics (the press performance is Dec. 4) and theater industry movers and shakers who are potential backers of future productions. Lisi has invited them to the Dec. 8 performance. "If there's a buzz, they'll come," she said.

Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure

The musical premieres Dec. 5 and runs through Jan. 3 at Ferguson Hall of David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. $38.50-$72.50. There are preview performances through Dec. 4. Changes are often made in a production during previews as the cast and creative team gauge the audience's response. Preview tickets are $15 less than those after the opening. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045;