BWW Review: WONDERLAND, Grand Opera House, Belfast
In a contemporary reimagining of the classic Lewis Carroll tale, Wonderland is Frank Wildhorn's new musical, currently touring venues around the UK until August. Originally produced in the US, then debuting at the Edinburgh Playhouse in January of this year, Wildhorn's work follows Alice, a single mother, down the rabbit hole after her loquacious daughter, Ellie.
While Wildhorn's score is soaring and the songs catchy, the book and production fall short. The story incorporates both of Carroll's Alice tales -Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass - and teaches us that we must be the heroes in our own lives and be adventurous in order to grow. Unfortunately, Lotte Wakeham's direction emphatically lacks adventure and the cast perform as if they are all playing the narcoleptic dormouse: persistently on the verge of sleep.
Wonderland exhibits high production quality in terms of visual design at the cost of theatrical innovation. The caterpillar, while competently played, is invoked by a green jacket with a long, shaped tailcoat and four female actors in matching attire - simply holding it. A decided lack of vision seems to be at play here.
While the opening number, "Worst Day", is a strong beginning for the ensemble, they fade thereafter into lazy lines and half-hearted pirouettes. The possibility pervades that this was caused by the small matinee audience, however this is not and never will be a viable cause for sub-par performance.
Several supporting actors do shine, however, including Natalie McQueen as the Mad Hatter, who provided a stirring and unexpected villain. Her strong vocals and consistent, vivid performance is refreshing and engaging. Clearly, it would have been a treat to see her as Sarah in last year's Murder Ballad at the Arts Theatre.
Naomi Morris, as Alice's erstwhile daughter, also sets the stage alight on several occasions, mostly with her on-point comic timing and impressive, childlike physicality. In contrast, Michelle Pentecost, the alternate for Kerry Ellis, offers an irritatingly passive and unrelatable Alice. While her vocals are sharp, her performance lacks truth and originality, creating a paint-by-numbers emotional journey.
Wendi Peters is impressive as the Queen of Hearts, giving a stunning vocal masterclass, but is onstage regrettably little. The second veteran of the production, Dave Willets, offers a comfortable and clever portrayal of the mischievous and misled White Rabbit, however the heart of his performance, the song "I Am My Own Invention", was lost due to poor sound quality from a low mic. Unfortunately, technical missteps did not end there, as several characters were often missed by the follow spots and lost in the deep purple lighting during moments of exposition.
Andrew Riley's set design is evocative and vibrant. The integration of video projections and LED lights dancing around the three-dimensional whirlpool backdrop suits Wonderland's otherworldly atmosphere. Hearts and diamonds are pleasantly, notably absent. Lucie Pankhurst's choreography is effective and imaginative, however it's failed by the execution.
All in all, Wonderland is disappointingly pantomime-esque ,despite having the potential to break new ground in an over-explored area of literature. The lamentably unfulfilling narrative of Alice becoming her better self is unnecessarily and almost painfully drawn out, and the second act dwindles inevitably until the production comes to a creaking halt and lazy reprise. Unoriginal and lacklustre, but sporting occasional strong performances, Wonderland is a forgettable experience.