By Donna Herman
The latest entry in the multitude of adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s seminal novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the musical Alice by Heart, is the inaugural offering at the newly opened MCC Theater’s Newman Mills Theater. The creative team behind this effort has some pretty serious chops. The book was co-written by Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and Jessie Nelson (Waitress) who also directs, and the music was written by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). So, I was all set to enjoy myself when I took my seat in the theater.
Alice by Heart is set in London during the Blitz of World War II. The Playbill tells us it is set in an Underground station – a makeshift shelter during the bombing. “And, one golden afternoon in Wonderland.” The plot is not overly complicated. It’s a shelter during the bombing, mainly for stray children found without parents. Young Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon) is there with her only possession, a copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Her friend Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan) is brought in having been found buried beneath some rubble and he is put in quarantine because he is very sick. Close to death in fact. Alice is convinced that she can keep Alfred alive by reading to him from her book as she used to do but is thwarted by the Red Cross Nurse (Grace McLean), who eventually tears up the book.
However, Alice knows the book by heart and manages to sneak in and recite it to Alfred and they fall into Wonderland. Fittingly, Alfred, whose time on earth is limited, turns into the White Rabbit who is obsessed with time and being late in the novel and forever consulting his watch. The unsympathetic Red Cross Nurse becomes the evil Queen of Hearts and The Magpie in one of the best performances of the production by Grace McLean. Her small bit as The Magpie was a comedy primer in animal work and her song “The Trial” garnered the biggest applause of the evening, not just for her spectacular voice, but for her complete vitriolic domination of the stage.
While there’s much to like about Alice by Heart, I don’t think it’s quite there yet. There are two big issues for me. Whenever you’re doing an adaptation of any work, the big question is why? What is it you’re trying to bring to the party and say? Especially by setting it where you do and arranging it like you do? For me, that was murky here. There was a lot of musing about time and the lack of it. Growing up and not growing up, but I didn’t get any arc in the character of Alice herself. It was all around her, but it didn’t come from her.
Which leads to the second issue, which I suspect would get cleared up in dealing with the first. And that is the relationship between Alice and Alfred. Are they children? Or are they teenagers who fall in love? Their song and physicality at the end of the show suggest that they’re “in” love. Which kind of feels wrong and funny, as if I had missed something. If, however, that was the intent, it can’t come out of nowhere.
There’s a lot of creativity here and the basic concepts and structures work well. The choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman is excellent and works beautifully in tandem with the costumes by Paloma Young, especially in the Caterpillar song “Chillin’ the Regrets” and the Mock Turtles song “Your Shell of Grief.” And Jessie Nelson’s deft direction makes the transitions from bomb shelter to Wonderland and back seamless and clear with a big assist from clever lighting by designer Bradley King. The ensemble cast is splendid, and it looks like they’re having a lot of fun. But for God’s sake – let’s drop the now you hear me, now you don’t, English accents.
Alice by Heart Book by Steven Sater with Jessie Nelson, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Steven Sater, Choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman, Directed by Jessie Nelson.
WITH: Mia Dilena (Ensemble); Zachary Downer (Ensemble); Noah Galvin (Dodgy/Duchess/Dodo/Mock Mock Mock Mock Turtle); Molly Gordon (Alice Spencer/Alice); Zachary Infante (Nigel/ Dormouse/Eaglet/ Knave of Clubs); Andrew Kober (Dr. Butridge/King of Hearts/Duck/Jabberwocky/Mock Turtle); Grace McLean (Red Cross Nurse/Queen of Hearts/Magpie); Nkeki Obi-Melekwe (Tabatha/Cheshire Cat/ Caterpillar 2); Catherine Ricafort (Clarissa/Canary/Queen of Diamonds/Mock Mock Mock Turtle); Colton Ryan (Alfred Hallam/White Rabbit/March Hare); Heath Saunders (Angus/Caterpillar/Knave of Hearts); Wesley Taylor (Harold Pudding/Mad Hatter/Pigeon/Knave of Spades/Mock/Mock Turtle).
ORCHESTRA: Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik; Additional Orchestrations by Simon Hale;
Jason Hart (Vocal Arrangements/Music Director/Conductor/Piano/Ableton); Jacob Yates (Associate Music Director/Cello); Andy Stack (Guitars); Simon Kafka (Bass/Guitar); Yuval Lion (Drums); Chris Reza (Woodwinds); Kate Amrine (Trumpets); Benjamin Rauhala (Music Copyist); Chris Petti (Ableton Programmer).
Scenic Design by Edward Pierce; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Bradley King; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by J. Jared Jonas; Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis; Production Stage Manager, Davin De Santis; Production Manager, Steve Rosenberg; Casting by Telsey + Company/Rebecca Scholl, CSA. Presented by MCC Theater, 511 West 52nd Street, NYC. Performances through April 7th. For tickets visit: https://mcctheater.org/tix/alice-by-heart/#book.