Thursday, May 5, 2011

REVIEW: Wonderland


Review of the April 30 evening performance. At the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 10 minutes, including an intermission. Starring Janet Dacal, Darren Ritchie, E. Clayton Cornelius, Jose Llana, Karen Mason, Kate Shindle, Carly Rose Sonnenclar, Edward Staudenmayer and Danny Stiles. Book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Music by Frank Wildhorn.  Lyrics by Jack Murphy. Choreography by Marguerite Derricks. Direction by Gregory Boyd.

Grade: F

It has been my experience that shows are never as good as their highest praise, nor as bad as their lowest pan.  I wish that were true of Wonderland, the messy musical that opened recently at the can't-find-a-hit Marquis Theatre.  Not only is it as bad as its lowest pan, it is worse.  By far.  This show commits the biggest sin of them all: it is so bad that you laugh AT it and don't feel bad doing so.  And the laughs, for this viewer, were plentiful throughout.  I must admit that I feel kind of bad for the show.  Everyone involved is working so hard (too hard, really), and I feel like I'm kicking a dog when it is already down (1 Astaire Award nomination total out of every award it was eligible for is a dog that is down).  But let me be plain: in 28 years of attending Broadway theatre, this show ranks amongst the worst I have ever seen.

Alice, meet Alice.

My grandmother used to say, "too many cooks spoil the sauce." (Didn't everyone's grandmother used to say that?)  And Wonderland is a prime example of just that.  While the book is credited to only Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, it is widely known that others have stepped in to doctor the script.  One can only imagine what they started with, but what they ended up with is a sloppy, nonsensical mish-mash of Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Wizard of Oz.  It tries to be all things to all people.  It tries to be a fresh take on a classic - and an adult going through Alice's adventures could have been interesting had maybe Stephen Sondheim taken a crack at it.  It tries to be a big family show - swearing and adult themes are kept to a minimum, but let me give them a hint: instead of knocking the king of family shows, Disney, every five minutes, embrace the king of family shows; even their worst is way better than this.  And perhaps saddest of all, it tries to be a mega musical of the order of Wicked, but in copying its original story, The Wizard of Oz, this show comes off like an ugly stepchild; Elphaba would even have thrown in the towel at this.

Out of some sort of respect for those involved, I'll try my best to be more brief than usual.  And I'll even start out with some praise:

What is "good" about Wonderland:
  • The show's logo is brilliant.  Really.  Not a hint of sarcasm here.  For sarcasm, read on.
  • The show curtain, with its interesting projections from classic Alice in Wonderland swirling about the scrim, coming and going like a drug-induced hallucination, is the visual highlight of the evening.

"Through the Looking Glass"
  • The lighting (designed by Paul Gallo) is bright and very colorful.
  • The projection screens/scenery (designed by Sven Ortel) are enormous, bright and colorful.
  • The costumes (designed by Susan Hilferty) are very plentiful, very bright and very colorful.

Carly Rose Sonnenclar
  • As Chloe, Carly Rose Sonnenclar is the perfect mix of precocious smarty pants brat and world-weary adult covering a scared child.  And she sings like an adult - off putting and odd, but good.
  • All three adult female leads, Janet Decal, Kate Shindle and Karen Mason, can hold notes, stand perfectly still center stage and sing loudly.  They are everything an audience apparently wants in this age of American Idol, as the audience seemed to lap up each trill, slide and power note like cats to cream.

"One Knight": Jack and the Knights

  • Darren Ritchie as Jack, the White Knight, is the only one in the cast who seems to get the joke.  And there really isn't a "joke." (And his backup Knights sure look hot in those skin tight polo pants, for real.)
  • Three songs, "Through the Looking Glass," "One Knight," and "Together," hint at what the score (by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy) could have been.  The last two, clever numbers done a la The Backstreet Boys/New Kids on the Block, are comfortably en vogue again, and the first is a catchy thematic anthem that brings the Alice story into the 21st century.

(It seems like a lot of positive doesn't it?  Look closer...)

What is "not good" about Wonderland:
  • The direction by Gregory Boyd.  Just think, they ran Julie Taymor out of town and let him get away with this.  Greg, you are one lucky man.
  • The not even good enough for 80's MTV choreography by Marguerite Derricks.  Well, it does match the rest of the mess on stage...

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare have Chloe
  • The rest of the set (designed by Neil Patel) is so busy trying to be clever - is it Disney?  Is It Wicked? Is it industrial?  Is it futuristic? - that it never gels, and quite frankly looks like an explosion at the Crayola factory.
  • The enormous projections don't help.  The enormous back wall creates dizzying, hazy effects, and the side panels have so much movement on them at all times that they need to sell motion sickness pills in the lobby.  Seriously, they warn you when strobes are being used; they should do the same here.  And for all the movement and color, by about scene three, it is boring and repetitive.
  • For shame, Susan Hilferty.  You seem to have infringed on your own copyright with this mess of Wicked wannabe clothes.  Of course, you can be forgiven some of it.  I mean you HAD to show us a traditional Alice outfit at some point, right?  And someone told you that The Mad Hatter's minions were supposed to look like the Tomorrowland street cleaners at Disney World, right?  And thank you for ensuring that every shred of material with a playing card design is off the shelves in the entire tri-state area.

The Caterpillar and his, er, "legs"

"El Gato"

They're off to see the Wizard... uh...
  • As the Caterpillar, "El Gato," aka the Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit, E. Clayton Cornelius, Jose Llana and Edward Staudenmayer do everything they can with what they are given.  But as stand-ins for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion (they all utter such gems as "Alice, I'm scared," "If I could only think for a minute," and something or other about a broken heart) they pale in comparison.  And as representatives of the globally inclusive world of Wonderland, they are a shocking and, quite frankly, offensively racist trio.  Every sad stereotype of the African-American pimp daddy (the Caterpillar talks to his legs, all girls, like they are hookers), the smooth, gold-toothsome, heavily accented Hispanic (complete with pimped out junk car graffitied and stocked with an equally offensive gang), and the nervous nelly Euro guy (effete, with pseudo-lisp, twitching gestures and ridiculous vest) is played here.  I was offended on behalf of people everywhere.
  • Danny Stiles as the March Hare is creepy in that keep-your-kids-away-from-the-weird-guy-in-the-park kind of way.  And he seems to enjoy it.  A lot.  Ick.

Don't play with the Queen of Hearts
  • Then there is Karen Mason as the troubled mother-in-law in the reality scenes (don't ask) who tries so hard not to be her Wonderland counterpart that she barely registers.  This is bad because she is part of the reason there is trouble in New York City.
  • Then there is Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts, a real "show queen," boys, who belts out hints of Gypsy, Evita and even The Music Man.  Can someone PLEASE find this woman a decent show to be in?  Sure she can sing, but "Off With Their Heads"?  Really, Captain Obvious?  And how demeaning that she has been directed to hold a note and beg for applause with a hand gesture.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party
(insert political joke here)
  • Another actress with potential in search of a great show is Kate Shindle, who as the New Mad Hatter (don't ask), tries too hard to have fun with the villainess role, where she comes off more like a scenery chewing dominatrix than a bad lady with evil to do.  (So much for the family show aspect.  I guess they are counting on the horny tired business man looking for a diversion he can tell his wife about later.)
  • Saddest of all, though, is Janet Decal, as Alice.  She sings well, and can act (she was great in In the Heights) but she is simply not leading lady material, unable to carry even this trifle on her small shoulders.  She is the prime example of why just singing loudly and belting out long held notes is not enough.  I give her a lot of credit for going out there night after night.  But what does it say when you are married in real life to the knight in shining armor and have zero stage chemistry with him as his damsel in distress?

There is plenty of blame to go around here.  The book scenes are derivative and trite (and the scene with "The Victorian Gentleman" is achingly bad and literally laugh-at-able, screaming, "we couldn't figure out how to get Alice to the final confrontation scene!").  The characters make even less sense than they are supposed to - I mean Alice was notoriously written in a drug-induced, drunken state by Lewis Carroll as it was, but this is beyond belief.  Let's just say, my mouth dropped to the floor when The Mad Hatter, after kidnapping Alice's daughter and trying to have Alice killed several times, turns to Alice and says, "I am your alter-ego."  Huh?  And I hate it in books, movies, and now musicals, when convenient plot twists just pop up to get us out of a jam - the white rabbit's watch is a time machine? Ugh.

Finally, you hear a lot about "Frank Wildhorn" shows, and how tacky they are, etc.  That is an awful lot of finger pointing for a guy who only provides the music, and not even the lyrics.  I enjoyed The Scarlet Pimpernel (all 3 versions) and thought The Civil War was a decent, conceptually artistic piece.  I'd put Wonderland in the same league as Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde.  All three have a lot of potential, and all three have at least pleasant, if unmemorable tunes in them.  I'm not sure why someone who is only the musical composer of a show is the one everyone identifies with this show and his others.  He does his job - whether you like them or not, his show tunes are what audiences ask for - creating toe-tapping, hummable tunes.  His downfall is that the majority are so generic sounding that you forget them as soon as you are done applauding them.  But Wonderland is just so bad in so many ways it seems unfair to say, "What do you expect from a Wildhorn show?"  His is the least offensive contribution to the whole thing. 

Unorganized and ugly, Wonderland is wonderless. 

(Photos by Paul Kolnik)
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  1. I was sad about this production mainly cause in that 2011 Tampa try-out I felt they finally had the show they wanted to tell and there was more scenery too, when these "show doctors" I will confess they pretty much ruin it for me. And I never saw the costumes as "Wicked" knock-offs, but Neil Patel looking glass frame just staying there at every scene always bugged me. My personal take, 2009 version: C, 2011 version: A-, but the Broadway version I do kinda agree and that's sad cause I believe in it.

  2. Shut up. Wonderland was a great show. I also played the mad hatter in this show. Kate shindle rocked it. I played the mad hatter in this show in london. It doesn't really make sense but it is still a great show!!


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