April 23, 2011

There's No Wonder in "Wonderland"

Bad-mouthing Frank Wildhorn’s musicals has been a blood sport for years. Critics complain that his shows—Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War—pander to plebian tastes and that his songs are sappy and sentimental. I had declined to join the disparagers. Until now. That's because I've now seen Wonderland, the totally vapid retelling of “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened at the Marquis Theatre last Sunday night.

I hadn’t expected Wonderland to be a great show. Not every show has to be great. Jekyll & Hyde wasn’t and it ran over 1,500 performances  And I had been amused by The Scarlet Pimpernel, which, Spider-Man-style, shut-down midstream and overhauled its production (I saw both the before and after) and ended up running for a not-shabby 772 performances. 

Both shows were extravagant undertakings with lavish sets and costumes. Sophisticated theatergoers may have scoffed but regular folks ate them up. And, as an unabashed theater populist, that was fine with me.

“Alice in Wonderland,” which in the past year has also been made into a popular Tim Burton movie and two ballets, would seem to be right up Wildhorn’s alley.  But it was clear within the first five minutes that, this time, he’d taken a really bad turn. 

For some inexplicable reason, Wildhorn and his collaborators decided to reimagine the story so that Alice isn’t a Victorian-era little girl but rather a contemporary single mom, recently separated from her unemployed husband, working hard at a job she doesn’t like and too harried and depressed to have much time or energy to spend with her daughter.

Alice’s playmates have gotten makeovers too. The Cheshire Cat is transformed into El Gato, an Hispanic character so stereotypical that the National Council of La Raza may want to haul him and his creators up on anti-defamation charges.  Meanwhile, despite the classic illustration in the show’s logo, the Mad Hatter has undergone a sex-change and now comes off as a wannabe-dominatrix. 

Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy wrote the book; Murphy did the insipid lyrics to Wildhorn’s pop-rock score and Boyd directed. I ached for the actors as they determinedly made their way through groaner jokes about the Tea Party movement and the now-requisite ironic shout-outs to other musicals including Evita, South Pacific and Gypsy. I’m purposefully not naming any of the actors' names cause they’re already suffering enough.

I know that no one sets out to do a bad show and so I was prepared to give Wonderland the benefit of the doubt.  But this production, financed largely by some Florida-based investors, looks as though it’s been done on the cheap, even though it reportedly cost $15 million. A show doesn’t have to be a spectacle but it shouldn’t look like a high school production if it’s charging Broadway prices. 

I confess that I had expected some eye candy and had even invited my artist friend Lesley to see the show with me so that we could talk about the visual aspects. Instead, the set is basically a collection of cubes covered in what appears to be green AstroTurf. Not much wondrous in that. 

With just a couple of exceptions (the chorus girls who plays the Caterpillar's “legs” do a cute number early in the show) most of the choreography is generic and slapdash. I’m guessing that heavy-weight costume designer Susan Hilferty, who won a Tony for Wicked, refused to sign on unless she got a half-way decent budget and so the costumes, at least, provide something worth looking at.

There are, however, two other good things in the show. Carly Rose Sonenclar, the 11-year-old who plays the neglected daughter, has a mature and lovely singing voice that made me wish the show had gone the traditional route and cast her as Alice. And Sven Ortel has charmingly animated the familiar illustrations that John Tenniel created for Lewis Carroll’s books about Alice’s adventures. 

Ortel’s video projections play on the curtain during the intermission and are the best part of Wonderland. Unfortunately, the man sitting next to me didn’t get to see them. He had come alone to the show and I imagined that he was in-town on a business trip and hoping to catch a Broadway show that he could boast about when he got back home. But he left as soon as the first act curtain came down.  After all, even plebeians have some taste.

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