How do you breathe new life into a story that’s over 150 years old? By pumping it full of big musical numbers and a likeable cast.
‘Wonderland’ is Frank Wildhorn’s modern musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tales ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through The Looking Glass.’ In this version of the story, Alice is a 40 year old single mum down on her luck, struggling to care for her teenage daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) and dreaming of a better life. After a particularly bad day, Alice, Ellie and their neighbour Jack (Stephen Webb) find themselves following a white rabbit into a disused lift, which transports them into a world where it is always teatime and everybody lives in fear of the imperious queen.
What ensues is a somewhat chaotic narrative journey involving a hat factory, a rebellion and a talking mirror, but the end result is a fun, family-friendly experience, which ends on a nice message of encouraging young girls to believe in themselves. In fact, the show as a whole is low-key feminist; the reimagined version of the Hatter is very much a woman, and one character’s arc hinges on her realising that happiness doesn’t come from being with a man.
As Alice, Kerry Ellis is very much the show’s heart, conveying a lifetime of disappointments and broken promises in the opening number, before embracing the role of heroine in her own story. Natalie McQueen channels rock divas Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry as the Mad Hatter, who flits from bonkers to villainous and back again, and even manages to fit in a sweet little romance with the March Hare.
Dave Willetts lends gentle gravitas to the role of the White Rabbit, rolling his R’s and never once taking the character too seriously. And Wendi Richards makes full use of her somewhat limited stage time as the egomaniacal Queen of Hearts, speaking in pinched, girlish royal tones whilst devouring jam tarts and sentencing her subjects to death in her two musical numbers, ‘Hail The Queen’ and ‘Off With Their Heads.’
Standout supporting performances include Kayi Ushe, whose ‘Advice From A Caterpillar’ oozes smooth, and Dominic Owen, who plays the Cheshire Cat as if Mr. Mistoffelees had joined Panic! At The Disco.
The set design is surprisingly minimal, but one very neat trick evokes ‘The Wizard of Oz’; in the real world, cast members are dressed in drab costuming, and their surroundings are all grey. Once they venture into Wonderland, the set and cast come alive in vibrant colours. And the songs themselves embody all the energy and charm you might expect; ’Wonderland’ and ‘Tea Party’ fill the stage with frenetic choreography, ‘One Knight’ is an enjoyable boyband pastiche, and ‘This Is Who I Am’ and ‘Finding Wonderland’ offer a rousing, satisfying emotional conclusion.
All in all, worth a trip down the rabbit hole.