'Alice by Heart': Theater Review

Deen van Meer
Colton Ryan and Molly Gordon in 'Alice by Heart'
We've been down this rabbit hole far too many times.
4/7/2019

The 'Spring Awakening' team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/book writer Steven Sater reunite for this new off-Broadway musical inspired by Lewis Carroll's classic 'Alice in Wonderland.'

Forget falling down the rabbit hole. The worst thing that ever happened to Alice in Wonderland was entering the public domain.

Since it became free for the taking, Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy has inspired innumerable adaptations and variations, including a 1976 pornographic movie. Some of them have admittedly been sublime, but more often than not they're laborious. The latter is unfortunately true of the new musical reuniting the Spring Awakening team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/book writer Steven Sater. Featuring a book co-written by Sater and Jessie Nelson (Waitress), Alice by Heart demonstrates that it might be time to give Alice and those fantastical characters surrounding her a well-deserved rest.  

An intense familiarity with those figures certainly proves essential to fully appreciating the nuances of this work receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's MCC Theater. It really shouldn't be, since a new work should be able to stand on its own. But like so many lazy theatrical efforts, this production uses a lengthy program insert to introduce (or reintroduce) us to such beloved characters as the White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat and King of Hearts. It also helpfully clues us in to the show's premise, namely that Alice (Molly Gordon) is a young British woman seeking refuge in a London Underground railway station during the World War II blitz. There she's joined by her best friend, Alfred (Colton Ryan), who has been seriously wounded.

Reading Carroll's classic to console her during her travails, Alice once again falls through that proverbial hole and encounters the various characters with whom children of all ages are so familiar. The event also seems to accelerate Alice's budding sexuality, as she marvels at the new size of her breasts. It's but one of many themes hinted at but never satisfactorily explored in this frustratingly confused, incoherent effort. The shelter's bedraggled inhabitants are inevitably transformed into such figures as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, but so diffusely that they lack impact or dramatic sense. There's little to tell that an actress is playing the Cheshire Cat, for instance, other than the wide grin she keeps plastered across her face.

To be fair, some of the transformations are inventive, such as the ensemble linking arms and undulating to give the impression of the Caterpillar, or the use of crutches to form the Jabberwocky. World War II-style props like gas masks and rifles are employed to inspired effect, with helmets substituting for teacups during the tea party and as shells for the Mock Turtle. The choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman is consistently inventive, providing much-needed visual cohesion to the proceedings, at least.

But there's precious little else to hang it all together, save for the omnipresent pop-rock score featuring no less than 20 songs blending into an unmemorable hodgepodge. Sheik's gift for melody is on ample display, but none of the numbers jump out with the musical furiosity of such Spring Awakening standouts as "The Bitch of Living" or "Mama Who Bore Me." The lyrics are equally undistinguished; at least when they're not totally bizarre, such as the Mock Turtle singing lines like "My tortoise taught us Torah" and "Kvell within your shell like me" to the strains of klezmer-inspired melodies.

You can also rest assured that the show delivers a timely reminder of female empowerment. "Enough's enough, I've shrunk enough!" Alice sings toward the end. "And time is up!" Message received.

Despite the efforts of the hard-working ensemble, Alice by Heart ultimately doesn't have much heart at all. Director Nelson infuses the production with fine technical elements, such as Edward Pierce's striking Underground set, dominated by a large glowing clock that's hauntingly illuminated by Bradley King's piercing lighting. And it all takes place at the handsome Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in Hell's Kitchen, an excellent and much-needed addition to the off-Broadway landscape. The new venue, one suspects, will have a much longer shelf life than the derivative musical opening it.

Venue: The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, New York
Cast: Mia Dildena, Zachary Downer, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Zachary Infante, Andrew Kober, Grace McLean, Andrew Mueller, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Catherine Ricafort, Colton Ryan, Heath Saunders, Wesley Taylor
Book: Steven Sater, Jessie Nelson
Music: Duncan Sheik
Lyrics: Steven Sater
Director: Jessie Nelson
Set designer: Edward Pierce
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Choreographers: Rick and Jeff Kuperman

Presented by MCC Theater