Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Go Down The Rabbit Hole To Rediscover Alice
When a new musical has something special about it, wherever it is in the world, word normally spreads like wildfire. You only have to look at the recent phenomenon of Hamilton to see that.
Wonderland is a musical based on the famous Lewis Carroll tale.
Wonderland - a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - first appeared in the US and is now embarking on its first UK tour, but is still relatively unheard of on these shores. So does it have the theatrical class to pull the rabbit out of the hat?
This new tour reached Birmingham's New Alexandra Theatre this week following nominations for Grammy, Tony and Drama Desk Awards and sell-out seasons in Tampa, Texas and Tokyo. It returns back to the Midlands in July at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre but also visits venues including Wimbledon near London and Manchester.
Many of you probably know that Lewis Carroll's tale from over 150 years ago focussed on the heroine spending an hour underground meeting fantastical, often shape-shifting characters, in what ends up being a dream.
Bright costumes and set in Wonderland
In this modern adaptation to the original stories, Alice gets a Bridget Jones Diary makeover and is now a whining 40-something troubled woman with career issues, an estranged husband and a dysfunctional relationship with her daughter.
It's amidst this backdrop that Alice finds herself dropping into Wonderland with her daughter and a doting male neighbour where she encounters a motley crew of characters that help her rediscover herself and the importance of challenging the evil dictatorship of the Queen of Hearts.
There are some 21st Century changes to the characters and plot - some of them work but some miss the mark.
It's refreshing that instead of falling into a rabbit hole, they enter Wonderland through a broken lift in their tower block and that the Mad Hatter is a female who becomes a power-hungry Donald Trump-like crazed figure shouting 'You're Fired' after stepping through the looking glass to discover her other side. There's also an endearing aside of a burgeoning romance between the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.
This is the first UK tour from Wonderland
On the down side however, there's no drink me/eat me scene of shrinking or getting larger, which is a shame, and the version of the Cheshire Cat doesn't seem to smile that much but is some kind of annoying streetwise cat trickster.
The first quarter of the show is also haphazard with a lack of spirit in the script. It's only when the talking Looking Glass comes on stage that the humour, action and pace of the production lifts dramatically.
As each of the characters step through the glass to discover their hidden self, it's like a scene from TV show Stars In Your Eyes. They reappear through hazy smoke with a new look and attitude. Daughter Ellie is very funny emerging as a sulky teenager while the neighbour is transformed into a hunk who performs hilarious boy band style routines at random intervals.
Despite limitations to the plot and script, the lead actors can't be faulted, and all belt out a tune really well, particularly Kerry Ellis, best known for playing Elphaba in the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked, as Alice. She is a sensational singer, but sadly the songs aren't as memorable or as strong as her voice.
It's a shame, as the soundtrack has been written by Frank Wildhorn, who wrote an array of pop hits including Whitney Houston's epic Where Do Broken Hearts Go? The songs aren't bad but they aren't catchy enough to make Wonderland stand out amid other touring musicals like Wicked, Mamma Mia! or Miss Saigon, for instance.
Music and dance routines in Wonderland
Meanwhile, there's the well known face of Wendi Peters (Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street) who's a scene stealer as the jam tart-eating Queen of Hearts. She plays the role with the right level of eccentricity and meanness. It's just a pity that she doesn't spend that much time on stage.
Wonderland is an interesting take on the Lewis Carroll classic tales which manages to still capture the bizarre wildness and nonsensical aspects of some of the characters. There's a mix of romance and mother and daughter reconciliations and it nicely ties everything up with a few morals on the importance of being yourself and standing up to tyrants.
It's an enjoyable enough escape but it's also frustrating that there is a superb cast limited by the restraints of the show. Ultimately, there's a reason that Wonderland hasn't yet become a household name.
Wonderland UK Tour
It's worth noting that Ellis won't be performing as Alice in matinee performances. She's also only playing the lead role on tour in Birmingham, Bromley, Woking, Manchester, Wimbledon, Bristol, Brighton, Liverpool, Stoke, Milton Keynes, Bournemouth. At other cities it will be Rachael Wooding.
I saw Wonderland in Birmingham and Alison's review is spot-on. I'd add that the sets and props were very imaginative. Particularly impressive was the caterpillar who had many legs courtesy of four female dancers. And Natalie McQueen was excellent as the Mad Hatter.