Alice By Heart with score by lyricist Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik, and book by Sater with director Jessie Nelson is a big disappointment. This new musical treatment of Alice in Wonderland reset in W.W. II London during the Blitz is confused and confusing. What is most missing is the magic and enchantment of the fictional world of Wonderland. The songs do not forward the story but seem to be philosophical commentary, often anachronistic to its 1941 period, on heroine Alice and hero Alfred’s problems which tend to slow down the action of the musical.
Set in a London Underground tube station turned into a bomb shelter, Edward Pierce’s realistic designs look expensive and solid but are too architectural and realistic for the trip down the rabbit hole. Aside from a doctor and a Red Cross nurse, the characters are all teenagers who have taken shelter from a bomb which has leveled both their homes and a school. (Question: were there bomb shelters during the London Blitz that only serviced youth?) Alice Spencer who has memorized every word of Lewis Carroll’s book arrives just before her best friend Alfred Hallam is brought in and quarantined, suffering from the last stage of tuberculosis.
In order to get away from her painful reality and Alfred’s fatal diagnosis, Alice suggests that she read Carroll’s book to him. Soon she has become the heroine and he is the White Rabbit who is both always late and always running out of time. The other denizens of the bomb shelter become Lewis Carroll’s iconic characters. However, as they play between three and four characters each, it is very difficult to follow who is who except for the doctor and the nurse who appear as the King and Queen of Hearts. The props are all 1940’s items (helmets, rifles, gas masks) and Paloma Young’s costumes appear to be inspired by found objects.
The best part of the production is the direction by Jessie Nelson which keeps the show moving in unusual ways throughout. Although the choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman is mostly hand and arm gestures à la Bob Fosse, it also adds visual splendor to the mostly barren tableau. Occasionally Bradley King’s lighting turns the stage red, green or blue but this only seems to call attention to itself. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design with its bombs and sirens continually brings us back to the reality of the war.
In an attempt to suggest Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue, there is much word play and punning, most of it rather flat. Often the characters speak in rhyming couplets which is just like playing with words. Sater’s lyrics are extremely prosaic and repetitious, with a great many trite rhymes, something that Spring Awakening was never guilty of. Sheik’s music has no catchy songs though the Caterpillars’ song, “Chillin’ the Regrets,” is brilliantly staged. Examples of the banal lyrics include Alice and the White Rabbit singing:
And now we’re down the hole –
And really on a roll.
And something on the shelves
Hold something of our selves.
During the croquet game, the Duchess is given the following repetitious lyric:
Manage your flamingo,
If you play croquet, dear,
When you play croquet dear,
You have to do the do.
Most of the others are not a whole lot better and have a great deal more unnecessary rhyming words.
Molly Gordon’s teenage Alice is mainly asked to argue with all the other characters as well as stand up for herself, while Colton Ryan’s sympathetic and ailing Alfred seems resigned to his character’s fate. The other denizens of the tube station bomb shelter are very well defined but once we get to Wonderland their previous personalities seem to disappear: Noah Galvin’s Dodgy, a young thief, Zachary Infante’s Nigel traumatized by the bombs and the loss of his family, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe’s Tabatha, a street tough, Catherine Ricafort’s Clarissa, an upper- class young girl dressed in a tutu for her birthday party which will now not happen, Heath Saunders’ Angus, a working class youth, and Wesley Taylor’s Harold Pudding, a young recruit suffering from shell shock. While Grace McLean’s Red Cross Nurse is particularly mean taking literally the word “cross” in her title, Andrew Kober’s Dr. Butridge is nothing more than authoritative. Mia DiLena and Zachary Downer complete the cast as anonymous members of the ensemble.
A great deal of work seems to have gone into Jessie Nelson’s production of the new musical, Alice By Heart. Even so, it is an even greater disappointment as it is 13 years since Sater and Sheik have presented a new musical since their triumphal debut with Spring Awakening which also used a 19th century classic for its inspiration. Nevertheless, Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy will survive this adaptation as it has all of the others. It may even send some audience members back to the book. A word about the new theater: Edward Pierce’s setting appears to be built up higher than the stage floor which makes it extremely difficult for the patrons in the first two rows to see. It is to be hoped that the next show will not make that mistake or will take out those offending seats.
Alice By Heart (extended through April 7, 2019)
Newman Mills Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
For tickets, call 646-506-9393 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission