TAMPA — At one of the final dress rehearsals for Jobsite Theater’s “Alice,” art director Spencer P. Meyers was putting the finishing touches on paintings of the Walrus and the Carpenter.
Actor and choreographer Katrina Stevenson stretched her limbs while listening to members of the band debate about Oreo cookies.
It was a glimpse into how the tightknit ensemble created an original cabaret.
The new show, “Jobsite Theater’s Alice,” is based on Lewis Carroll’s novels “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” It was adapted by director David M. Jenkins, Meyers and Stevenson, who included scenes from both books.
After the success of 2021′s gothic cabaret “Shockheaded Peter,” a 1998 musical based on a German book, Jobsite’s group of artistic associates was inspired to take a work in the public domain and turn it into something of their own. How? Create all of the music themselves — and a cast of puppets to bring the show to life.
The first step for Jobsite in putting their stamp on the classic material was to create original music for the show. Music director Jeremy Douglass worked on the score, and cast members Colleen Cherry and Kasondra Rose wrote lyrics.
Even Douglass’ 6-year-old daughter Juniper contributed. One day, Douglass overheard her singing — or rather meowing — a “captivating little melody.” He thought it would be perfect for the Cheshire Cat but ended up expanding it to become the main underscore theme for the show.
Douglass pulled lyrics directly from Carroll’s text, but said Cherry and Rose also had to interpret some of the action and make lyrics from them.
“They would write a little melody that goes to their lyrics that gives it sort of a rhythmic structure and then they would send that to me, and then I would just mess it up and change it all around,” he said.
Cherry said she and Rose “divided and conquered” the stories, and that most of the lyrics are snippets of Carroll’s text.
The collaboration was done over Google Docs and voice memos. The three of them didn’t get in a room together until the first rehearsal.
“If we do this again, I would prefer to have some of the things set well in advance so that we can get some recordings to the actors, because it’s kind of a struggle to memorize Lewis Carroll’s words,“ Cherry said. “First of all, some of them make no sense at all. So it’s hard to think logically about what I’m saying next, and make it make sense in my brain, but it makes no sense.”
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Douglass drew inspiration from musicians like Kurt Weill, Danny Elfman and The Tiger Lillies, as well as the music from “Shockheaded Peter.”
Douglass struggled with setting the book’s iconic poem “Jabberwocky” to music, so he took inspiration from the overture of the Tom Waits song “Lucky Day,” in which Waits sounds like a carnival barker.
“I was like, that’s what the Jabberwocky sounds like, a madman carnival barker,” he said. As a character, the Jabberwocky (played by Robert Spence Gabriel) is a narrator (along with Bandersnatch, played by Cherry), and yells the poem into a megaphone.
Art director Meyers had been working on “Alice in Wonderland”-themed artwork (he’s a longtime fan of the books), including a deck of cards that he created during the pandemic. Jobsite artistic director David M. Jenkins made him the art director for this show, and asked if he was willing to create puppets.
Though he had never made them before, Meyers agreed, and spent the next six months watching YouTube videos to learn how. He’d acted with puppets in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts production of “Avenue Q,” which was helpful for his creation process because he understood how the puppets should feel for the actors.
After a lot of trial and error, and help from his mother, whom he dubbed “Lady MacGyver,” Meyers created the puppets and found workarounds to lighten the load for the actors performing with them. The actual building of the puppets began in January, and lasted about three months.
“It’s not easy either. You’re cutting foam, making patterns, using contact cement, so I’m with a respirator on outside with gloves,” he said. “(It was) a lot more than I anticipated. It was totally worth it.”
Julia Rifino works the Alice puppet, and Ryan Sturm does the White Rabbit, March Hare and Mock Turtle. They appear onstage with the puppets, and Meyers was complimentary of their ability to emote through them, making them “lovable muppets.”
Stevenson made the costumes for the actors and the puppets, so Meyers worked closely with her on bringing his designs to life.
Meyers described the fluid nature of the collaborative process that developed even after the first rehearsals. For example, the mad tea party scene originally didn’t have a song, but they thought of drinking songs and used the teacups and saucers to create a rhythm.
“We’re all a little mad,” they sing.
What to know if you go to “Jobsite Theater’s Alice”
Jobsite Theater’s Alice runs through June 4. The immersive show is 85 minutes without intermission. Not recommended for kids younger than 5. Tickets start at $44.50. Shimberg Playhouse, David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts, 1010 N Macinnes Place, Tampa. 813-229-7827. jobsitetheater.org.