The Alley Theatre's production of Wonderland, the latest musical from Frank Wildhorn, is billed as a world premiere. But the official opening was last November in Tampa Bay, Florida, at the Straz Center, where Wildhorn sometimes showcases his new work. The run at the Alley is "to continue development," which is a nice way for the press department to say, "Work in progress. Enter at you own risk."
This is an old-fashioned out-of-town tryout — a staple of almost every Broadway-bound show, in which the creative artists tinker with a troubled production in hopes of improvement. And what's currently onstage cries out for change. It's hard to say whether a major rewrite can fix the show's problems. As it currently plays, Wonderland is hardly full of wonder. While every scene is overstuffed with finely crafted, finely performed musical numbers, there's no connection between them. Although showstoppers, they meld into each other like glittery, glamorous Vegas showgirls. Soon, we can't tell the leggy chorines apart.
Co-written by longtime Wildhorn collaborator Jack Murphy and Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd (whose work as director is exceedingly more fluid), the book is lame and spiritless. "Inspired" by the classic books by Lewis Carroll, the character of Alice (Janet Dacal) is an overstressed workaholic writer in Manhattan, who's not only on the verge of a divorce from her inventor husband (Darren Ritchie) but has no time for her daughter Chloe (Julie Brooks).
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
Through February 14. $21-$100.
Alice attends a book party in her honor, where she meets people who will later appear as the classic Carroll characters. Meanwhile, Chloe runs away from home. Going after her, Alice enters an elevator and is whisked below into Wonderland, where her adventures follow a most perfunctory pattern. Look for a door, go in, meet a strange character who sings and dances, find the next door, etc. The unwavering pace takes its toll. Throughout, Alice is whiny and brusque (unlike her Victorian prototype, who's prim and impatient), so her last-minute conversion doesn't occur naturally so much as it happens on faith. What's the message? Be a kid? Live imaginatively? Think happy thoughts?
Muddying the waters, there's the inane subplot of the Mad Hatter (Nikki Snelson) trying to "de-brain" Chloe and usurp the Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason). Transforming the most beloved of all Carroll's creations into a sadistic killer is unforgivable to any Carroll-phile, but adding silly juvenilia is plain careless and sophomoric scriptwriting. During Act II, Lewis Carroll (Darren Ritchie, again) surprisingly pops up. Although he sings what is perhaps the most melodious of the show's songs, "I Am My Own Creation," he's obviously a fragment from a former script. He makes a hazy plot point and quickly disappears.
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The musical numbers — though too numerous and emotionally alike; how many American Idol power ballads can we hear in a row? — are the true wonders in Wonderland. Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, Scarlet Pimpernel and numerous other literary adaptations) knows his way around a song; give him any type to write, and he'll pull it out of his hat. You want hot salsa for El Gato (Jose Llana) — that's the Cheshire Cat for you traditionalists — and, presto, one steamy Latin number, "Go with the Flow." How about a belty, old-time, Sophie Tucker, second-act curtain-raiser? Easy, here's "Off with Their Heads," a real showstopper, thanks also to Mason's Broadway Baby rendition. You want punk? Okay, here's "Nick of Time," with Snelson wailing like Joan Jett. And let's not forget Jersey Boys and a piece of exquisite doo-wop in "One Knight," a tongue-in-cheek paean to the '50s, as the White Knight (Darren Ritchie) and his slick backup quartet bop across the stage in tight polo outfits. Perfect.
Except for the impressive roiling storm clouds, the other highly vaunted CG background projections seem rather cheesy. While the sets, costumes and nonstop lighting (by Neil Patel, Susan Hilferty and Paul Gallo) are somewhat effective, the overall look of this $3 million enterprise is more Teletubbies than Tenniel. On the plus side, although Marguerite Derricks's choreography flirts shamelessly with Caesar's Palace bump-and-grind, the dancing is redeemed by blasts of kinetic energy and a much-needed sense of humor.
Imported en masse from the Tampa production, the cast is fairly impressive. Dacal is a fresh blast all her own with a dewy, yet knowing, presence (never mind that she's outfitted in a short red dress and with springy red corkscrew curls, making her look like Little Orphan Annie's older sister). The best voice belongs to Ritchie, whose plangent, dark tenor literally envelopes Wildhorn's soaring melodies. Mason is a ham and quite tasty. Llana's highly enjoyable El Gato rehashes a drug-free Cheech and Chong routine, while Tommar Wilson makes an ultrahip Caterpillar — his 12 legs belong to six slinky chorus girls, although both the legs and the girls mysteriously vanish after his first number.
All told, Wonderland is akin to the Alley's last attempt at a blockbuster Broadway musical, The Gershwins' An American in Paris. Take away the energetic, sequined musical numbers, and all you have is threadbare storytelling. That's not a musical — that's what closes out of town.