At the heart of “Alice,” Andrew Barbato’s new musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved adventure, lies a tender coming-of-age story. It’s sweet and sincere, and thanks to a knockout performance by Leigh Barrett as Alice’s mother and the Queen of Hearts, the Wheelock Family Theatre’s production nearly hits its mark. But Barbato’s pastiche-like approach to storytelling often comes off as a confusing jumble of scenes the audience needs to plow through to get to the good bits, and the music, by Lesley DeSantis and Barbato, often lacks a coherent sense of melody.
The story opens with Alice (Maritza Bostic) waking up on her 13th birthday and singing about her wish to have “Another Person’s Life.” Resentful of her mother and her sister’s (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) expectations, Alice chooses instead to follow a mysterious White Rabbit (Stephen Benson) down a hole into Wonderland. What follows are a series of scenes or songs inspired by “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” but unfortunately, they are too randomly selected to build Barbato’s theme.
The scenes are, however, an opportunity to see this talented Wheelock Family Theatre ensemble shine. Jenna Lea Scott, who thrilled audiences with her performance as Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” last season, is terrific as Frog Footman, although it’s not clear why she’s there; Noah Virgile and Dashiell Evett as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee have a lovely moment reinforcing their brotherly bond even as they battle each other; Alexandra Nader is a hilarious Cook; and Aubin Wise as the White Queen displays some impressive vocal power, although her position as Alice’s conscience and/or fairy godmother is confusing and seems unnecessary.
There are, in fact, so many characters competing for the role of Alice’s narrator, adviser, and guide, it’s no wonder Alice is lost. The March Hare (Jane Bernhard), the Cheshire Cat (Julia Talbot) and the White Queen all weigh in, creating a cacophony of voices that distract us from the essential journey.
Fortunately, Alice makes her way into the Queen of Hearts’ turf, and once Barrett arrives, the pieces come together with amazing clarity. Although we met her in the first act as Alice’s mother, here Barrett displays her utter command of the stage, combining impeccable comic timing with her imperious “Welcome” number, and then delivering a wrenching “Paint the Roses Red,” in which the queen reveals her vulnerability: It’s her wish to capture perfection and avoid change.
Before you can say “white rabbit,” Barrett has been transformed back into Alice’s mother and she, the White Queen, Alice, and Sister all sing about the challenges of growing up.
Set designer Matthew T. Lazure’s multi-tiered set creates some wonderful opportunities for creative staging, and Lisa Simpson’s costume designs are simple but evocative, especially for the Caterpillar and Flower Buds. Music director Robert L. Rucinski conducts a sprightly four-piece orchestra to accompany the singers, but the music itself never finds a consistent groove.
As director, Barbato creates several effective tableaux, but his pacing is uneven, with cluttered scenes tripping over one another without feeling connected. “Alice” represents an ambitious effort by this young composer/playwright/director that, with some judicious pruning, and more focused transitions, will establish him as a talent to watch.