Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alice in Wonderland, City Theatre, Aug. 21- September 14

The City Theatre gives us a rollicking musical good time with Alice in Wonderland and at the same time avoids the deadliest sin of adaptations – dumbifying (cf., the discussion between the Gryphon and Alice concerning “uglifying”).

Those of us who met our most cherished heroes of childhood not in cartoons but rather in words on the page or in tales read aloud have strong feelings about them. Certain precious books of childhood stand to lose most subtleties and many secret delights at the hands of an adapter.

Just remember what Disney did to Alice - - and worse, to Winnie the Pooh!

Andy Berkovsky and Stacey Glazer do NOT dumb down the wonderful text of Lewis Carroll. In fact, they go in the opposite direction – they take “Alice in Wonderland” almost verbatim, start to finish.

They do steal the irresistible Tweedledum and Tweedledee from “Through The Looking Glass,” but one can forgive them that because they and the actors do that two-ness so well.

Many 21st century creatures, and especially the very youngest, who were very much in evidence on Friday night, cannot possibly capture all of Carroll’s 19th century whimsy and pedantry. For example, the lengthy lecture on the kings of England offered as a “dry” text to the soaking-wet Alice and friends probably sounds like real nonsense to our young.

But the City Theatre compensates with sight gags, vivid costumes, song, dance and a hilarious klatch of creatures certain to keep everyone entertained.

And bravo to Nicole Sykes as Alice! She’s spunky, droll, animated and enchanting, with the √©lan and appeal of the young Judy Garland, whom she strongly resembles. She can sing and dance and carry on with the best of them. And her meticulous attention to the details of childhood behavior was lovely: the wide eyes of surprise, for example, the distracted moment of attempting to balance along the edge of the steps, or the unselfconscious scratching of an unexplained itch.

Her spontaneous bursts, alternating with her self-reprimands in the voice of an unseen governess or other adult, emphasize Carroll’s key message – that children are delightful in large part because they are such changlings. They grow, they become self-aware and self-critical, and then, one day, those amazing creatures are quite transformed. And not, Carroll would imply, necessarily for the better.

Here’s a Baedecker for this special journey, which travels through a space as intimate as your living room:

Diego Flores as the White Rabbit:

A fine collection of birds (Lory, dodo, and duck -- whose names play on those of Alice and her sisters) (Sarah Bannister Wilson, Elizabeth Rast and Jenny Keto)

Stacey Glazer as the Duchess, a spitting image of the Tenniel illustration

Casey McAuliffe as the Cheshire Cat, whose serenity, smile and casual body confidence made one yearn to be feline

Tweedledum and Tweedledee (or, actually, Liz Roark as Tweedledee and Jacob Safari as Tweedledum)

The tea party, complete with Alice, the March Hare (Austin Rausch) , the somniferous Dormouse (John Kelly), and the Mad Hatter
(Nathan Brockett)

Dale Herbert as the Queen of Hearts, towering over everyone except the White Rabbit

and Tyler Steph as the King (who has trouble, unfortunately, in differentiating between “important” and “unimportant”).

Other striking characters and costumes not captured in this collection are, among others, Fiona Rene as the many-handed caterpillar, Rachel McGinnis as the French mouse (spot-on accent, and that's from someone who knows), the froggy footman (Verity Branco), Sarah Tufts as the pepper-obsessed singing cook, the 2 and 5 of spades (Sebastian Garcia and Verity Branco), the Knave of Hearts (Robert Burkhalter), the cockney Gryphon (Kate Lefave) and the melancholy Mock Turtle (Daniel Lefave).

The eleven musical numbers put together by Walter Pohmeyer fit nicely into the action and dance. Some were slightly derivative. I think I recognized tunes approximating “Satin Doll,” the monkeys’ number in Disney’s Jungle Book, and “Hava Nagila.” But the score used full-band orchestrations, nicely modulated so that we could follow the actors as they sang.

I had some misgivings about the pre-curtain use in the theatre of Gershwin’s orchestral scoring for “An American in Paris” (Gene Kelly kept appearing in my mind). But for those without that baggage, Gershwin’s savvy syncopation is as good as softening-up as anything.

In sum: see it! Alice in Wonderland is a colorful and charming evening with zany friends, a happy adventure of music and absurdity.

The play left the children with sparkling eyes and the adults with some of the feelings that Carroll attributes to Alice’s sister at the end of the narrative, as Alice runs off, thinking what a wonderful dream it had been:

“First, she dreamed about little Alice herself: once again, the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers – she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes. . . .

“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality. . . .

“Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”

Click for Hannah Kenah's review in the Austin Chronicle, September 4

1 comment:

  1. Several people I know in this one. I hope I get a chance to see it.