'Wonder.land': Theater Review

Wonderland Production Still - P 2015

Wonderland Production Still - P 2015

More blunders than wonders in this muddled trip through the looking glass.

Co-written by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, this high-tech British stage musical reboots Lewis Carroll's classic novel for the social media generation.

Britain's busiest theater director reunites with Britain's busiest pop musician for this internet-age reboot of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a splashy world premiere to open the biennial Manchester International Festival. Rufus Norris, new artistic director of the National Theatre in London, previously collaborated with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn on their 2011 "folk opera" Doctor Dee, another MIF commission. This time they have worked with stage and screenwriter Moira Buffini to re-imagine Lewis Carroll's evergreen Victorian fantasy novel, first published 150 years go.

Initially conceived as a darker story inspired by Albarn's travels in North Korea, the focus of the piece shifted when the singer suggested to Norris and Buffini that smartphone screens and social media sites are looking-glass portals for 21st century teens. The boisterous musical that ensued is a child-friendly, technically dazzling, oddly old-fashioned spectacle that contains echoes of everything from Oliver! to Mary Poppins to Matilda. Sadly, it lacks the sharp script, memorable tunes and strong dramatic spine that made those previous works into classics. As with Doctor Dee, Wonder.land may require some judicious surgery before its London transfer. It opens at the National Theatre in November, then moves to the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

Lois Chimimba gives a likeable if slightly bland star performance as the heroine Aly, a troubled mixed-race teenager who lives with her single mother (Golda Rosheuvel) and baby brother in a grim high-rise housing project. Bullied at school and neglected at home, she retreats from monochrome reality into a brightly colored cyber-fantasy game called Wonder.land, choosing as her avatar a blonde, blue-eyed, white-skinned fairy princess called Alice (Rosalie Craig).

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The political and psychological implications of such trans-racial role-playing would make a rich and topical theme, but Norris and Buffini dispense with it in a few glib lines. Clearly that is one rabbit hole they do not want to explore. Still, the interplay between Aly and Alice is cleverly choreographed, often involving synchronized moment and speech.

Complications arise when Aly enters Wonder.land, only to discover the bullies and self-esteem issues that dog her in real life can be just as painful in the virtual world. When power-crazed headmistress Ms. Manxome (Anna Francolini) confiscates her phone, steals her identity and hijacks her avatar, Aly is forced to call on her estranged deadbeat dad (Paul Hilton), a mentally fragile gambling addict.

Playing a character inspired by Carroll's Red Queen, but with a hefty shot of Cruella de Ville, Francolini makes a deliciously wicked diva. Loosely channeling the Mad Hatter, Hilton also brings a charismatic stage presence and a strong voice, at times uncannily similar to Albarn's melancholy Estuary English tones.

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Albarn's lively orchestral score foregrounds the cockney music-hall elements which have long been part of Blur's DNA, this time lightly sprinkled with the electronic bleeps and bloops of computer games. All pleasant enough, but the snappy motifs and instant earworm choruses that define classic stage musicals elude him. A bigger problem is first-time librettist Buffini, whose lyrics are verbose and witless and full of extraneous clutter. Her one good musical joke is a number knowingly titled "Everyone Loves Charlie," eliciting sniggers in the Manchester crowd for its nudge-nudge double meaning — "charlie" being slang for cocaine. But any stage musical without two or three rousing anthems is not doing its job.

Set designer Rae Smith, costumer Katrina Lindsay and digital projection team 59 Productions all deserve maximum credit for rendering the cartoonish visual grammar of the virtual world live onstage, blending billboard-sized 3D animation with shape-shifting sets and eye-popping outfits. The White Rabbit (Rob Compton) becomes a hyperactive computer-game character, making jerky repetitive movements with the vaguely sinister air of the Donnie Darko bunny. Also impressive is the Caterpillar (Hal Fowler), an immense human centipede construction composed of 10 green globes and operated by five actors. A giant motorized teapot and an army of dancing circus-freak avatars add to the overall air of psychedelic Yellow Submarine surrealism.

Sadly, not even a full arsenal of high-tech razzle-dazzle and a handful of stand-out performances can save this sprawling production from its thinly written characters, incoherent plot and trite message about being true to your real self. Norris, Albarn and Buffini wrote Wonder.land with their own screen-age children in mind. The take-home impression is one of well-meaning middle-aged parents trying to get hip to the online age, but offering nothing more substantial than patronizing platitudes.

Cast: Lois Chimimba. Rosalie Craig, Golda Rosheuvel, Paul Hilton, Anna Francolini, Enyi Okoronkwo
Director: Rufus Norris
Music: Damon Albarn
Book and lyrics: Moira Buffini
Set designer: Rae Smith
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Projection designer: 59 Productions
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Music supervisor: David Shrubsole?
Presented by Manchester International Festival, National Theatre, Theatre du Chatelet