a theatre, film & pop culture review
Disney re-imagined the tale of the girl tumbling down the rabbit hole, creating a bizarrely upbeat tone and painting (the roses red and) Wonderland as a dreamy playground; and Tim Burton most recently re-conceptualized the children’s classic with creepy-cartoonish human characters in a dreary, off-beat, and rather dull homage to the nightmarish story. There are, of course, dozens of other delightfully weird (and weirdly delightful) takes on the tale, including a 1972 British musical film starring Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore and — curiouser and curiouser! — a 1976 soft-core porn.
This time around, Alice has followed the wrong rabbit, and is faced with an utterly depressing wonderless land on the other side of the looking glass.
Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland is the epitome of today’s Broadway musical: a recycled story with forgettable characters, undistinguished score, and lots of florescent lights (Paul Gallo), and blindingly bright costumes (Susan Hilferty) and sets (Neil Patel’s latest since the nonsensical revival of Oleanna — oh, those glacially-moving blinds!). The cheap-looking design is at least cohesive in its garishness, seemingly geared towards kids with ADD and adults who base a show’s worth on sequins and spectacle (Sven Ortel’s cheesy video-game-esque projections).
But let’s ignore the eyesore design for a moment and get to the base of the problem: Frank Wildhorn (score), Jack Murphy (book/lyrics), and Gregory Boyd (book/directing). This destructive relationship spans years and shows, on Broadway and off, never to stellar, or even tolerable, results. All three had a hand in the critically assailed flop, Civil War, and Boyd directed the massively popular pop-goth musical, Jekyll & Hyde. Primarily a director, this appears to be Gregory Boyd‘s second shot at scriptwriting, and it really should be his last. In a super-slim conceit, an adult Alice (Janet Dacal) inexplicably follows the White Rabbit into Wonderland only to cross paths with the attiudinal Caterpillar (E. Calyton Cornelious), El Gato (a cheesy Mexican stereotype of the Cheshire Cat energetically played by Jose Llana), The Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle, playing madness as twitchiness), and The March Hare (a dreadlocked Danny Stiles, not at all resembling a rabbit). That’s it. That’s the plot, and it’s full of terrible tea party jokes, easy jabs at Disney, and nary a delightful character to be found.
It’s become too easy to poke fun of a Frank Wildhorn show, as they are notorious messes. The fact of the matter is, though, that while his collaborations are most unfortunate, Wildhorn’s scores are often quite pleasing, full of sweeping ballads and rousing choral numbers. Certainly he’ll never be mistaken for Sondheim, but his music will also never be the main reason a show fails (and, in fact, The Scarlet Pimpernel is great, campy fun). Alas, in the case of Wonderland, even Mr. Wildhorn has gotten particularly lazy. Here, each character, in a slightly different style, introduces his or herself to Alice via song, and that’s the entire score: character introductions. All are indistinctive, and each is forgotten immediately as the next character magically appears on stage.
The one charming exception to this mundane musical parade of Wonderlandians is “One Knight,” when we meet Jack the White Knight (Darren Ritchie), who musically vows to save Alice, his Damsel in Distress — never mind that she’s not actually in any distress. Jack and his fellow knights serenade Alice boy-band style, replete with cheesy-generic love-song lyrics, over-the-top vocal affectations, and hilariously spot-on step-touch, dramatic finger-snap, heart-pumping movement. To thank for this one genuinely clever, joyful moment in an otherwise dull show, we have the hilarious choreography of Margueritte Derricks, in only her second Broadway effort.
Unfortunately, even Jack and his band of hunky boy-knights couldn’t save this uninspired musical in distress. Mr. Wildhorn, do yourself a favor: cultivate some new creative relationships and develop some completely original work. Your critics — and your fans — will thank you.