Thursday, October 23, 2014

ALICE - a new musical

Edge Media 10/20/14 - Kilian Melloy

Has any children's book sparked so much interest, and so many re-interpretations across so many forms of media, as Lewis Carroll's 1965 novel "Alice in Wonderland" and its sequel, published six years later, "Through the Looking-Glass?"

The first film adaptation hit screens in 1903; since then there have been multiple Cineplex and television versions of the story, with a forthcoming follow-up to the 2010 Tim Burton big-screen version now in production.

On stage, the first musical version of "Alice in Wonderland' went up in 1886; two operas, a ballet, and a musical with song by Tom Waits (!!) all followed.

Now, Boston's own Andrew Barbato has chimed in with his own musical, titled -- as was the Tom Waits-involved project -- "Alice." The world premiere of the new "Alice" is ongoing now through Nov. 16 at the Wheelock Family Theatre. The thumbnail review is this: As with so many Wheelock productions, you can (and ought to) take the kids to this one. And you don't want to miss it.

Barbato has clearly scrutinized Carroll's books, but he's not slavish to them. There's a shift in emphasis, away from Lewis Carroll's political satire and onto the question... or problem... of time -- or, rather, a human awareness of time's passage, something that children scarcely register but that weighs ever more heavily on adults.

This Alice (played by Maritza Bostic) faces her thirteenth birthday with more than a trace of apprehension. Her mother (Leigh Barrett), a laced-up Victorian sort, experts Alice to behave as a proper young lady and entertain the guests at her party with a piano recital. Alice isn't so sure about going from child to young woman instantaneously, and as a function of the calendar; she determines to run away. Cue the white rabbit (Stephen Benson), the plunge down the rabbit hole, the Cheshire Cat (Julia Talbot), and all manner of elixirs that expand the mind, enlarge and shrink the body, and make doorways of opportunity into splendid gardens (or tragic wastelands) either possible or not.

Seen from a child's perspective, the world of adults is unfathomably arbitrary, not to mention inexplicably convoluted and obscure. Barbato holds on to that sense of things being askew, but streamlines the narrative so that the Cheshire Cat puts in more than a cameo appearance (she's actually more of a guide in this version) and Alice's goal -- to find her way into the fabulous garden of the Queen of Hearts (Barrett, doing nicely symbolic double duty), by way of the Queen's fancy party -- is more easily traced.

Familiar episodes abound, but they have been given a different twist to fit into the new thematic thrust. Tweedle Dee (Dashielle Evett) and Tweedle Dum (Noah Virgile) appear as brothers reluctantly compelled by their masculine pride to settle differences by means of combat -- even though, like Alice, they seem to want to hold on to childhood a bit longer.

A murine boatman (William Gardiner) ferries Alice around, the Caterpillar (Elbert Joseph) lounges on a staircase in an imaginatively staged manner, the Frog Footman (Jenna Lea Scott), armed with twisty logic, guards the gateway into what might be considered domesticity and motherhood, and -- of course, because this just wouldn't be Alice or Wonderland without it -- the Mad Hatter (Russell Garrrett) and March Hare (Jane Bernhard) host their tea party, narcoleptic Dormouse (Merle Perkins) their eternal guest.

But always there's the underlying sense that Alice is slowly coming to terms with impending adulthood; after all, she can run away from home, but she cannot escape the clock, and its ticking follows her at every turn.

That's not the play's only audible element. This is, after all, a musical, and Barbato proves to be a talented songwriter. He's prepared about 30 songs for this play; they fit the material as well as the script, with its carefully judged tweaks to the source material, does. In an early song, Alice and her mother both lament that they need "Another Person's Life"; while shipboard with the mouse at the helm, Mouse and Alice engage in a duet called "Sea As Our Guide," a deft shorthand evoking the act of faith that growing up is in and of itself.

When the terrifying Queen of Hearts -- lopper of heads, erratic tyrant and ultimate mother figure -- finally grants Alice entree to her garden, the two duet on "Paint the Roses Red," a paean to transformation that touches upon fertile physicality as much as on intellectual maturation.

In one way, this "Alice" is a generally faithful adaptation, despite some quite striking departures; in another, however, it's an updated re-imagining that speaks to a 21st century audience while identifying new elements of universal appeal. No need to update the character -- Alice is still a little Victorian girl, and it would have been crass to re-cast her as a contemporary American.

What's fresh and exciting is how the play understands that even plugged-in, tech-savvy modern children, their iPhones and other devices in hand, speak the timeless language of children and view the world from a stature different from that of adults -- a stature in flux, allowing the world to be in flux, also.

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