Wonderland: Theater Review

What’s curious and curiouser is how this tedious mess ever made it to Broadway.

Lewis Carroll's classic fairytale receives a grown-up retelling in Frank Wildhorn's overproduced Broadway musical.

NEW YORK -- His lumbering period pieces have notched up some of the most consistently scalding reviews of any seasoned Broadway composer, but Frank Wildhorn keeps coming back, like indigestion. It would be gratifying to report that his latest musical, Wonderland, deserves a warmer welcome, but this clumsy Lewis Carroll update shuffles bland ‘80s pop imitations and third-rate show tunes to minimal effect.

Co-written by director Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, who penned the lyrics for Wildhorn’s score, the show had tryout runs at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Fl., in 2009, and early the following year at Houston’s Alley Theatre, where Boyd is artistic director.

Despite the critical cold-shoulder, Wildhorn’s shows have occasionally demonstrated staying power on Broadway, notably Jekyll & Hyde, which has also had a robust regional-theater life. Being a branding opportunity for subsequent licensing might explain why backers (many of them from Florida) ponied up a reported $16 million to bring Wonderland to New York. In every other respect, the show’s arrival is baffling.

On the most basic level, Boyd and Murphy’s book kills the central dynamic of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by making Alice (Janet Dacal) a grownup. She’s no longer an impressionable child navigating a terrifying world of new experience. She’s a schoolteacher and frustrated children’s book author, recently separated from her husband and faced with raising her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sinclair) alone. Instead of a rabbit hole, Alice tumbles down the service-elevator shaft of her Queens apartment building, scrambling to find herself.

A secondary but no less detrimental hitch is that the writers freely mix up Alice mythology with The Wizard of Oz. That includes making the trio of the White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer), the Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious) and a Hispanic Cheshire Cat who goes by El Gato (Jose Llana) -- all frustrating enigmas to Alice in the source material -- into lovable stand-ins for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.

While the overproduced show’s busy staging appears to be aiming for Wicked-size spectacle, it’s closer to The Wiz, the 1975 African-American retelling of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy classic.

It’s sad to revisit a low point in the career of a great filmmaker a week after his death, but more explicitly than The Wiz on stage, Wonderland recalls Sidney Lumet’s misconceived 1978 screen iteration. It’s gaudy and frenetic, yet unfocused; it has a drippy lead character we don’t care about; and it relies to a tiresome extent for laughs on contemporary language and references in a fantasy context. The tea party joke is inevitable.

Alice’s adversaries are the evil, power-crazed Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) and the certifiably mad but more manageable Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason). On the protector side is Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), a heroic hunk whose parallel identity back in New York will surprise no one.

Not content merely to distort the work of Lewis Carroll, the writers haul him from the grave (played by Ritchie again) for further humiliation, forcing him to hammer out belabored themes of believing your dreams and finding truth in stories.

The actors all work hard and sing well, but they don’t stand a chance amid this witless chaos. Wildhorn cooks up boy-band numbers for Jack and his fellow knights, who look like refugees from a Ralph Lauren Polo campaign. (These are among the few occasions choreographer Marguerite Derricks appears to be awake, aping moves more cleverly parodied in Altar Boyz.)

There’s generic Latino pop for El Gato, laid-back Prince-style funkadelics for the Caterpillar, a screechy anthem out of the Bonnie Tyler/Jim Steinman playbook for the Mad Hatter, and an old-school showstopper for the Queen, with nods to Gypsy, The Music Man and South Pacific. This show needs no help underlining its inferiority to classic musicals. In amongst all this is the occasional insipid ballad for Alice and Chloe.

Neil Patel’s sets are drenched in distracting projections and Susan Hilferty’s costumes pile on the whimsy, notably the Queen’s Vivienne Westwood-in-cartoonland frocks. But very little of the visual clutter onstage could be described as captivating. Fun-free and charm-challenged, this misfire goes down a path where too many revisionist fairy-tales have gone before, with far more humor and inventiveness.

Venue: Marquis Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Janet Dacal, Darren Ritchie, E. Clayton Cornelious, Jose Llana, Karen Mason, Kate Shindle, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Edward Staudenmayer, Danny Stiles
Director: Gregory Boyd
Music: Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics: Jack Murphy
Book: Gregory Boyd, Jack Murphy
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Paul Gallo
Video/projection designer: Sven Ortel
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Choreographer: Marguerite Derricks
Vocal music arrangements: Ron Melrose, Jason Howland
Executive producer: William Franzblau
Supervising music director/incidental & dance music arrangements: Jason Howland
Presented by David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Franzblau Media, Nederlander Presentations, The Knights of Tampa Bay, Michael Speyer & Bernie Abrams, Jay harris, Larry & Kay Payton, June & Tom Simpson, Independent Presenters Network, Sonny Everett Productions