Friday, April 29, 2011

theatre review- WONDERLAND, Broadway, April 28

Wonderland, the new Broadway musical, has a lot going for it.  It has a talented and eager cast, some excellent costumes, fun choreography and a simple yet effective set design.  What it doesn't have is a more than serviceable book and score.  It is a fun family show but doesn't quite succeed at being much more than that.

Sure there are some great show stopping songs, and the book manages to update the story of Alice in Wonderland to modern times with some humorous jokes, both ones that are hip as well as some that aim for the theatre insider.  But in order for a musical to be successful and survive on Broadway it has to be more than just okay.  It needs to excel in story and score, and that is where Wonderland doesn't quite make it over the finish line.  

This is actually the fate that has befallen Wonderland's composer Frank Wildhorn numerous times.  His Jekyll and Hyde might have had a decent run on Broadway, but every other show he's written hasn't been able to survive on Broadway very long.  I have a feeling Wonderland won't break his record.  Call it the good score/ bad book syndrome.

Jose Llana and Janet Dacal
The plot of the show is fairly simple, modern day New Yorker Alice, a recently separated mother who can't quite find success as a writer, finds herself in Wonderland and has to figure out how to get home, learning from the past what she needs to help her in the present.  Along the way she finds the characters we have come to know from the Lewis G. Carroll Alice books who help her on her journey.  Of course actors play the animal parts, some more effective than others.  Add in a female Mad Hatter, a Queen of Hearts who is basically just misunderstood and a standard journey home plot and you end up with a ho hum evening with only a few standout moments.

Darren Ritchie and the "knights"
Now I did say above that the cast was very good and they give it their all.  Janet Dacal is Alice, and she puts a hip spin on the character and sings with a nice strong and clear voice.  It's just too bad that the script pretty much only attempts to give her character some type of an emotional depth that is basically lacking in every other character.  Darren Ritchie, Karen Mason and Kate Shindle are the trio that play the main secondary characters.  Richie is the White Knight and plays the hero of the piece perfectly, not really caring about what it is he needs to do, as long as he gets to be the hero.  He also has good chops, singing and dancing very effectively in both the fun boy band songs with his fellow knights as well as the love scenes and musical moments with him and Dacal.  Mason plays the Queen of Hearts as well as modern day Alice's mother in law.  Mason gives both characters their own personalities, in fact if you didn't read the playbill you probably wouldn't realize she was playing both parts. She also has a great voice, and has a lot of fun with her two songs and her dialogue.  Shindle is the Mad Hatter and I don't know if she was having an off night or what, but Shindle is known for her amazing voice, which she seemed to be holding back last night.  Still she sounded good, looked great in her costumes and also had a lot of fun playing the villain of the piece.  As far as the "animal" characters, I especially liked Lose Llana who plays El Gato, the Cheshire cat, and E. Clayton Cornelious who is the Caterpillar.  Both effectively made their characters individuals in both gestures, accents and stage presence.  But unfortunately for both, once they had their solo scenes and songs in act one, they were virtually given little to do in the second act.  And I must comment on Carly Rose Sonenclar who plays Alice's daughter. For a young girl she has an amazing voice, great stage presence and completely holds her own with all of the adults.  I have to believe she has a very bright future ahead of her.

Karen Mason
The score has some nice moments, including a very catchy act one closer, "Through the Looking Glass," the aforementioned boy band songs for Ritchie, a beautiful duet for Dacal and Sonenclar, " Home," and a fun solo for Mason, "Off with Their Heads."   Unfortunately the rest of the score is barely memorable the day after.  The costumes by Susan Hilferty are pretty much all knock outs, I can't imagine her not getting a Tony nom for her work.  The set design by Niel Patel was actually fairly minimal but managed to use the moving flats and video projections by Sven Ortel effectively to keep the show moving.  Ortel's projections create some really effective, almost cinematic, stage images as well.

I did like the ending, though it was lacking in a real emotional connection to the characters, something again you can blame on the book.  And you can also blame the book for a somewhat convoluted second act.  I think this is one of the shows that has either been work shopped and revised so much that they've lost focus of what their original idea was or just doesn't have a good enough director to understand what needs to be fixed.  I mean, some of the actors play characters in both the modern world and in "Wonderland" but not all of them- if they're trying to put a Wizard of Oz spin on the Alice books then go all the way and have everyone play characters in both worlds, not just a couple. I do think the idea is a good one, and the score is only missing a good book to make it all work.  The fact that director and co-book writer Gregory Boyd and lyricist co-book writer Jack Murphy have worked on some of the previous Wildhorn shows that didn't succeed makes you wonder if maybe he needs to find new collaborators.    

Shindle and Sonenclar
While I think this is an enjoyable family musical and that it will probably run though the Summer, I have to imagine that repeat business or word of mouth won't be so great and that the Marquis Theatre will have a new tenant come Fall.  However with the Alice in Wonderland title, the Frank Wildhorn connection and the fact that it is an extremely family friendly show all combine to make me believe that this show will have a healthy life in regional and community theater in the future.

Official Show Site

Amazon link for the Original cast cd of  Wonderland

Highlights from the show -

Backstage with Jose Llana -


  1. Nicely done thorough review, LOVE the Jose Llana clip! He was my favorite, and while I agree the story itself was a bit weak, you hit all the high points and our family really enjoyed this show. I would definitely recommend it for families.

  2. Ironically, in the original versions of the show, they DID have mirror versions of the characters, specifically in the opening.