Lewis Carroll’s beloved classic "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" is about a bored little girl who falls asleep at the edge of a river and dreams of a fantastic country where she must use her wits and ingenuity to make her way. At the end, her sister wakes her on the riverbank and since she’s a child of Victorian England, she probably returns home for tea. Not so in the latest dramatic adaptation of the story,"Alice," now running at Wheelock Family Theatre.
Writer Andrew Barbato and composer and lyricist Lesley DeSantis have created a new work that discards Carroll’s simple frame to the story for a mashup of themes from "Peter Pan," "The Nutcracker" and Maurice Sendak’s "Where The Wild Things Are." Their "Alice" pictures a young girl on the brink of adolescence who must grow up and accept responsibility. This trade-off has its pluses and regrets in the Wheelock’s elaborate production filled with visual treats.
The new musical begins (and will end) in Alice’s room, on the morning of her 13th birthday. Alice (Maritza Bostic) is in bed with her cat, a sinuous, ever-adoring animal (Julia Talbot), when her mother (Leigh Barrett) enters and orders her to get dressed and ready for the party. "Don’t disappoint me, " Mother says, echoed by the character of Alice’s older sister (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith). And Mother never even wishes her daughter "Happy Birthday."
Mother’s demand is the cue for Alice to run away. After hearing some lovely chimes and crossing paths with a large, clothed White Rabbit in a fearful hurry, she follows him down the rabbit hole to land in a strange place filled with some vaguely familiar creatures. Her pet has morphed into the Cheshire Cat who will be her guide; her sister shows up now and then. Most significantly, her imperious Mother has become the Queen of Hearts who rules her kingdom with fear, masked by a pretended civility. We are in a post-Freudian landscape, indeed, unknown to Mr. Carroll.
Happily, Barbato and DeSantis have populated the stage with Carroll’s inventive characters. However, Barbato, who also serves as director, has made one major error in casting. Bostic as Alice is an assured actor-singer, with a winning sense of humor, but she’s a recent college graduate, too old to play the part. Barbato wisely begins the show with a chorus of well-spoken children reciting one of Carroll’s poems. The children later transform into Flower Buds in the Red Queen’s garden. Since the cast is a mix of children and adults, surely one of these charming young actors might have been entrusted with the title role.
The adults in the show portray the characters who guide Alice along the perilous pathways of her journey, leading to the garden of the Red Queen. Barrett, one of the most accomplished members of the Boston-based theater community, is nothing less than a wonder as the monarch, enriching the DeSantis score with her luscious operatic voice. She also exaggerates the Queen’s bad manners to a laugh-out-loud delight. As anchor of the production, she is one major reason to attend it. Although she is worth waiting for, the Deck of Cards as her courtiers are missing.
Other stellar performances are delivered by Robin Long as a hip swiveling, gospel-like, shouting Duchess, William Gardiner as the kindly Mouse, Aubin Wise as the White Queen, and Jenna Lea Scott, last season’s knock-out Tracy Turnblad in Wheelock’s production of "Hairspray," portraying a genial Frog Footman. Stephen Benson needed a song to cap his quivering performance of the White Rabbitt. Lisa Simpson has delivered an attractive group of costumes that echo the original drawings by Sir John Tenniel. Matthew T. Lazure built an all-purpose, wooden scaffolding to hold the action.
While Mr. Carroll doesn’t need this reviewer to defend him, it is strange that Barbato and DeSantis wrote their own lyrics rather than using the poems that dot "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel (other than "Twinkle, twinkle little bat"). How sad to not to hear "You are old, Father William," and "Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup," among the many omitted verses.