The beloved story of the little girl who tumbles down a rabbit hole gets a full-on facelift in this big-budget extravaganza – but though some of the furbelows are fun, the tinkering with the tale itself robs it of its magic. And the new narrative is, ironically, far more trite than the tried-and-true original.
In this latest riff on Lewis Carroll’s surreal adventurous tale, Alice (Janet Decal) is a down-on-her-luck New York teacher and mom. With a failing marriage and crushed career dreams of being a writer of children’s books, she stumbles into the service elevator of her new apartment building in Queens only to find herself descending to – you guessed it – Wonderland. But things have changed since the earlier Alice’s day. The soulful Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious) has a series of detachable chorus girls as legs; the Latino Cheshire Cat (the charismatic Jose Llama) calls himself Che and has lost his ability to vanish, though nobody has the heart to tell him; and the White Knight (an appropriately hammy Dareen Ritchie, who milks his role for all it’s worth) is now the leader of a boy band of aspiring heroes. But the Queen of Hearts (the formidable Karen Mason) is as fond of decapitation as ever, and Wonderland’s political intrigue is just as unavoidable as the power-crazed Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) plans to overthrow the Queen and take Wonderland for herself. And much though Alice, like the original, wants to stay out of it all, once her daughter becomes involved, she’s got to choose sides.
There’s no shame in playing with a familiar tale, as evidenced by this season's Peter and the Star Catcher and countless Shakespeare plays. Blessed with what must have been an enormous bankroll, this show does bring a few charming conceits to its modernization: The White Knight’s boy band is fresh and funny; Shindle’s female Hatter commands attention in a way her precursor never could; and a few of the introductory numbers, like El Gato’s “Go with the Flow” have an almost irreverent energy. But the frame story of Alice’s downsized life in Queens is ponderous and predictable, while the larger plot innovations, like the Mad Hatter’s attempted coup d’etat, frankly aren’t as compelling as the original story elements, like the crazed Queen herself, played with manic glee by Mason, who positively revels in her big number, unsurprisingly titled “Off with Their Heads.” The ultimate failure of imagination, however, comes at the denouement, which, without giving anything away, seems patched together from several other well-known tales.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about this super-sized production is just who it’s meant for. “Alice”-aged kids likely won’t get the musical references or “Tea Party” and Jefferson Airplane jokes, let alone the adult-sized concerns that motivate the heroine, but there’s not really enough depth of plotting or characterization to keep a grownup audience fully engaged, either. The musical’s strong suit is spectacle—the fabulous costumes, stunning staging and creative choreography suggest a creative imagination that does combine the innocence and darker depths of Lewis Carroll’s original—but the actual show, alas, doesn’t live up to that promise.