Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wheelock Family Theatre's ALICE Appeals to the Little Ones

Wheelock Family Theatre opens its 34th season with Alice, a musical reimagining of Lewis Carroll's classics, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. WFT veteran Andrew Barbato wrote the adaptation and directs the production featuring a garden of flower buds played by children who may one day follow in his footsteps, as well as some perennials on local theater stages who deserve to have more than a few bouquets tossed their way. From seedlings to adolescents to full-grown, the vibrant members of this ensemble are all ready to embark on the journey with Alice, down the rabbit hole and wherever it may lead.
Alice is set in two worlds: the real world (circa 1900) of a young girl waking up on her 13th birthday, and the fantasy world she escapes to in search of her dreams. Her excursion is a little like that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as she encounters strange beings in a strange land and learns that most of your dreams can be fulfilled from the comfort of your own bed. Feeling misunderstood by her strict mother (Leigh Barrett, in fine voice) and older sister (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith), Alice (the delightful Maritza Bostic) skips out on her birthday party in an effort to hold on to her childhood just a little bit longer. Enthralled by the notoriously tardy White Rabbit (a hare-brained Stephen Benson), Alice follows him, the first of many risky choices she'll make on this important day.
Adapting from two of Carroll's works required Barbato to pick and choose the segments of the stories that he thought would be the most compelling. Among the familiar tropes are Alice growing and shrinking to try to get through a door; the Tea Party with the Mad Hatter (Russell Garrett), the Dormouse (Merle Perkins), and the March Hare (Jane Bernhard) telling Alice there's no room for her at their long table; and the Queen of Hearts (Barrett in all her regal glory) demanding that all of the roses in her garden be painted red. Barbato bookends Alice's trip with adventures on the high seas with Mouse (William Gardiner), giving her an opportunity to find some skills she didn't know she possessed, and introduces the lesser-known beautiful White Queen (Aubin Wise) who acts as a supportive spirit guide to the young girl. Alice starts out looking for an escape, but learns that you can always keep your childhood dreams, even if letting go is part of growing up.
Despite the selective process that leaves the show at about two hours (plus intermission), Alice could benefit from some judicious editing. There's a plethora of life lessons to be taught, but in act one the pace feels frenetic, one scene and musical number tumbling into the next in order to get them all in. There are seventeen songs before intermission (and another ten in the second act), making it hard to distinguish or remember many. I'm not sure that every character has to have a song. For example, out of nowhere, the Frog Footman (Jenna Lea Scott) sings about being lonely and, although Scott sings it beautifully, it's one that could go. The Tea Party trio does a cute little song and dance, but not until the conclusion of their overly-long scene at the top of act two. If some of the book segments could be cut, the flow of the remaining scenes and existing songs might improve.
The eclectic score includes, among other genres, bluesy and gospel music, as well as a sea shanty. Musical Director Robert L. Rucinski conducts a four-piece orchestra, sitting in at the piano himself, and they handle the load well. The singers are never over-powered, but (note to sound designer Roger J. Moore) there were a few instances when actors started speaking before their mics kicked in at the Saturday matinee performance I attended. The ensemble is loaded with vocal talent, but Wise and Robin Long (Duchess) deserve special mention, as does the harmonic pairing of Dashiell Evett (Tweedle Dee) and Noah Virgile (Tweedle Dum). The designers - Matthew T. Lazure (set), Scott Clyve (lighting), Marjorie Lusignan (props) - create a wonderful playground, and Lisa Simpson's costumes resonate in both worlds of the play.
Despite its flaws, there is much to recommend Alice and more than a little credit lands on the shoulders of Bostic. Although we know she's a recent college graduate, she makes us believe that she's a thirteen year old girl and, more importantly, reminds us to believe in ourselves and our dreams. There were lots of little ones in the audience and the show seemed to hold their attention, although it didn't always hold mine. For me, there wasn't quite enough wonder and magic as a percentage of the whole play, which is why I think that less might be so much more.

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