Frank Wildhorn, the musicalizer of such famous titles as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Dracula," now turns his attention to Lewis Carroll's through-the-looking-glass children's classic.
"Wonderland," which opened Sunday night at the Marquis Theatre, takes a cue from the film version of "The Wiz" and makes Alice (Janet Dacal) an unhappy grownup.
She's got a rocky marriage; a daughter, Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar); job problems, and a new apartment in Queens she's just not loving.
There's potential to make the story here sing, but both its pop score and pop psychology end up sounding trite.
And another issue, which grows curiouser: Where's the wonder in Wonderland?
When Alice goes down the rabbit hole (actually, a service elevator), she should end up in a world teeming in imagination and meaning. Director Gregory Boyd's production plops Alice onto an often-empty stage. Designers Neil Patel (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Paul Gallo (lights) add bits of visual interest with swirling acid-trippy projections, audacious getups and bright rays of illumination.
That sort of eye candy doesn't equate to a compelling personality for the place. But it is something to look at during the interminable first act. It is swamped in exposition as Alice meets characters who all get an introductory ditty.
First up, White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer), then Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious), Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), El Gato, aka the Cheshire Cat (Jose Llana), Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) and Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason). Whew. It's a long list. And that's exactly how it feels watching the show.
Wildhorn's melodies roam the map: R&B for "Advice From a Caterpillar," Latin pop for "Go With the Flow," power ballad for "Through the Looking Glass" and tight boy-band harmonies for "One Knight." Between his music and Jack Murphy's simplistic lyrics, most songs mark time without moving the story or the audience.
Murphy and Boyd collaborated on the book, which coaxes out a few laughs. They've laced the script with puns and in-jokes, such as Disney's in-the-works "Wonderland" show. They take a stab at current events with a comment about Tea Party politics.
Something resembling a plot doesn't arrive until late in Act I, as Alice's journey clarifies. It's about reclaiming deferred joy and the powers of dreams and self-invention lost and locked inside her. It's like a John Mayer song: your body — and mind — is a Wonderland.
Performances are a mixed bag. Ritchie brings breezy zest to Jack, while young Sonenclar impresses with a remarkably mature voice she sometimes overworks "American Idol"-style.
Swallowed up by her cubist playing-card costume, Mason could be funnier as the royal. The big-lunged Shindle appears stiff as the villainous Mad Hatter, but the role is written that way.
Dacal ("In the Heights") displays a pretty voice and presence in her star turn. Alice's best number is her opening duet with Chloe, "Worst Day of My Life." It comes before they hit the rabbit hole. It is, alas, downward from there.
There's a lot of talk about time in "Wonderland." There's also so much laborious exposition and overexplaining, you'd think this flat new Broadway musical was inspired not by Lewis Carroll, but by Stephen Hawking.
As in the original story, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy's book sends Alice (Janet Dacal) on a wondrous journey. But here she's a young mother facing two dreadful situations: Her marriage is on the rocks and she's just moved to Queens.
It probably doesn't help that her daughter (the unsettlingly polished Carly Rose Sonenclar) is 11 going on 30.
One day, Alice follows a harried White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer) into her building's service elevator, and ends up in topsy-turvy Wonderland.
Most of the first act is taken up with numbers introducing each wackadoo character. This allows composer Frank Wildhorn ("Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel") to write serviceable songs winking at everybody from Danny Elfman to Kander & Ebb and 'N Sync. Can't decide what your favorite musical style is? Wildhorn does them all.
Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious) is now a jazz-spouting hipster while the Cheshire Cat has become El Gato (the energetic Jose Llana), who briefly turns the show into "Alice en el barrio."
There's also the obligatory bland hunk: Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), whose spoof of boy bands is like a Warblers routine on "Glee."
These repeated intros feel endless. The White Rabbit has a watch that can turn back time, which may be Cher's dream come true but isn't helping us -- we'd rather Boyd, who also directed, sped things up.
The second act has the power-hungry Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) trying to unseat the Queen of Hearts (the funny and full-throated Karen Mason, from "Mamma Mia!"). The latter looks particularly fabulous in Susan Hilferty's eye-popping costumes. Thank God they're so imaginative, because the sets and projections are bare-bones.
At first, the Queen seems faithful to Carroll's creation, albeit with nods to "Evita" and Momma Rose. Then she turns out to be downright grandmotherly. What a cop-out: It's hard to care for Alice's safety if there's no real danger.
This is also typical of the work's misguided approach. Who is a musical about a grown-up Alice for? This show clearly casts a wide net, but it also takes family-friendliness as a license to be simplistic. Come on, "Wonderland," test us -- we're smarter than you think.
If only little Alice, dozing away on the riverbank before sliding down the rabbit hole, had an inkling of the deeper import of the zany adventures that were to come. All those talking animals, querulous playing cards and animated chess pieces were not just peculiar, slightly menacing playmates, according to the new Broadway musical “Wonderland.”
No indeed. They were all potential gurus pointing the way to self-realization, each and every one intimating a message of empowerment. Had little Alice capitalized on all the wisdom they imparted, she might well have grown even taller than she did after drinking that elixir in the topsy-turvy world under the earth. She might have come to tower above the rest of us mortals as only — oh my heavens! — Oprah Winfrey does today.
That is the clear message of this peppily inspirational musical, which opened Sunday night at the Marquis Theater. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books about a girl’s odyssey through her dream-disordered imagination, the show features generic Broadway pop music by Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll & Hyde”), workmanlike lyrics by Jack Murphy, and a book by Mr. Murphy and the director, Gregory Boyd. “Wonderland” transforms Alice’s surreal wanderings into a contemporary parable about reconnecting with your inner child and other watery truisms of the self-help industrial complex.
The model here appears to be the Broadway behemoth “Wicked,” which recast L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a moral-dispensing tale of exceptionally gifted young women (hitherto known as witches) finding common ground in girl power. Unfortunately “Wonderland” reminded me even more strongly of another latter-day iteration of the Baum story, the bloated 1978 movie version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.”
You’ll recall — or maybe you won’t — that in the film the teenage Dorothy of the stage version became a grown-up, put-upon New York schoolteacher played by a saucer-eyed Diana Ross. The adventurer in “Wonderland” is also a harassed New York schoolteacher, Alice (the capable Janet Dacal), who aspires to write children’s books. Recently separated from her unemployed husband, she has moved to the “kingdom of Queens” with her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar, a good actress and an almost preternaturally skilled singer).
Dozing one night in Chloe’s bed, Alice is spirited away to an alternate universe in which the fanciful figures of the Carroll books are transformed into groovy, multiethnic contemporary equivalents. The Caterpillar with his hookah is a suave black charmer (E. Clayton Cornelious) who recommends a dose of self-reflection in a silky R&B song. The Cheshire Cat is a grinning Latino called El Gato (Jose Llana) accessorized with a glittery pimp-mobile (“My friends call me Che,” he purrs), urging Alice to “Go With the Flow” in a Santana-esque number. The White Knight (Darren Ritchie) becomes a square-jawed Disney-prince type who leads his fellow polo-playing cuties in a boy-band song celebrating his own heroism.
They team up to support Dorothy — um, I mean Alice — as she cracks mother-in-law jokes and tries with increasing exasperation to find her way home, a preoccupation that didn’t seem particularly urgent to the polite, spirited youngster in Carroll’s original. Scheming to thwart Alice’s plans are the local villains, the Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason), whose underwhelming razzle-dazzle showstopper is inevitably entitled “Off With Their Heads”; and the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle), a glowering vamp with dominatrix tendencies, who plots to overthrow the queen using little Chloe as a pawn in her machinations. (Even the Mad Hatter has a bent for analyzing Alice’s dissatisfactions: “A little girl grows up with a sense of wonder and hope,” she lectures, “but quickly becomes a woman who forgets all the dreams that reside in her head... .”)
Mr. Boyd and Mr. Murphy’s book displays flashes of fresh humor capitalizing on the novelty of an adult Alice at the center of the story. Picking up the bottle of liquid enticingly placed in front of her, Alice notes that the inscription reads: “Drink me. Responsibly.” There are the Broadway in-jokes necessary in any musical hoping for a soupçon of hipness, in this case quotations from “The Music Man,” “South Pacific” and “Gypsy” (rather a strange trinity, come to think of it).
But the desire to create a traditional narrative arc from the unruly dreamscape of Carroll’s original results in a convoluted story line pitting the good guys against the bad. Most of the second act consists of a drawn-out battle over Alice and Chloe’s fates, with an odd little timeout in which Alice encounters Carroll himself, coyly referred to only as the Victorian Gentleman (Mr. Ritchie).
Mr. Wildhorn’s absence from Broadway since his 2004 adaptation of “Dracula” has not exactly occasioned widespread hand-wringing, and his competent rendering of various pop styles in “Wonderland” probably won’t win him a host of converts. Mr. Murphy’s lyrics are of a matching blandness, with Alice’s earnest ballads of self-discovery amply stocked in cliché. (“I remember every moment when my heart was young and free,” she sings upon meeting — literally — her inner child, “and to my surprise I look through your eyes and once more I can see.”)
Although the silvered prosceniums suggesting an endless series of antique mirrors are a clever choice, the sets by Neil Patel, amply supplemented by Sven Ortel’s video projections, lack any transporting fairy-tale magic or even simple stylistic coherence. (It probably wasn’t a good idea to project animated images from the glorious Tenniel illustrations onto the curtain before the show begins.) The costumes, by Susan Hilferty, are similarly a riotous grab bag mixing nods to the traditional — the Queen of Hearts wears a playing-card frock as it might have been coutured up by John Galliano — and twisted variations on contemporary styles.
It might be impossible to recreate onstage the particular magic of Carroll’s writing, which captures as no other literary work does the texture of dreams. The mechanics of live theater cannot easily replicate the swirling imagery that evaporates as soon as it materializes. (Film, animated or otherwise, does it better.) And much of the books’ dizzying charm resides in the inversions of logic and literal sense based on the sound and sight of words themselves.
But Alice’s adventures are perhaps most subversively appealing for their blithe indifference to the kind of tidy moralizing that had been a staple of Victorian children’s literature. “Wonderland” thoroughly nullifies this aspect. Instead of transporting us back to an anarchic childhood world where right and wrong are just words like any others, to be tossed about at merry whim, the show drearily suggests that even grown-ups have to keep doing their homework, working doggedly toward self-improvement day after endless day.