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Review Roundup: Critics Go Down the Rabbit Hole At ALICE BY HEART


Alice By Heart

The New York premiere of the musical Alice By Heart with book by Steven Sater with Jessie Nelson, music by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Steven Sater and directed by Jessie Nelson, opens tonight off-Broadway.

When the madness of the world is too much to bear, we take refuge in the stories we love. Tony and Grammy award-winning creators of Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, reunite for their new musical Alice By Heart, inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and directed and co-written by Jessie Nelson (Waitress). In the rubble of the London Blitz of World War II, Alice Spencer's budding teen life is turned upside down, and she and her dear friend Alfred are forced to take shelter in an underground tube station. When the ailing Alfred is quarantined, Alice encourages him to escape with her into their cherished book and journey down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

As they travel through the tale, Alice By Heart explores the poignancy of first love, coming to terms with loss, and finding the courage to move forward. This world premiere musical encourages us all to celebrate the transformational power of the imagination, even in the harshest of times.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: The real-world characters are so hastily established and sketchily drawn that there's nothing compelling or surprising in their metamorphoses. It's also hard to grasp any necessary relationship between war-warped London in 1941 and the particulars of Wonderland.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Since it's free for the taking, Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy has inspired innumerable adaptations and variations, including a 1976 pornographic movie. Some of them have admittedly been sublime, but more often than not they're laborious. The latter is unfortunately true of the new musical reuniting the Spring Awakening team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/book writer Steven Sater. Featuring a book co-written by Sater and Jessie Nelson (Waitress), Alice by Heart demonstrates that it might be time to give Alice and those fantastical characters surrounding her a well-deserved rest.

Matt Windman, amNY: Rather than being a feel-good exercise, Alice now finds Wonderland to be a dark and creepy place, where the characters question her motivations and actions. Although sincerely intended and full of creative touches, "Alice by Heart" is a disjointed, depressing and bewildering mess. It would be near impossible to follow it without a working knowledge of the source material.

Barbara Schuler, Newsday: Directed by Jessie Nelson (who also worked with Sater on the book), the production is a hallucinatory take on the familiar tale, and it gets a bit muddled at times, hard to distinguish when we're in the shelter and when down the rabbit hole. Probably that doesn't really matter, better to simply enjoy the great music and the ultimately sweet retelling of the story about the young woman who never felt she was quite the right size and always felt she wasn't allowed to grow. And to reflect, of course, on how we all struggle at times with the need to fit in.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap: But sometime between the Caterpillar and the Jabberwock, the novelty wears off and the narrative isn't strong enough to push the show forward. It's the problem with almost any "Alice in Wonderland" stage adaptation - or any picaresque tale, for that matter. A stringing together of scenes may work in novels or the movies, where the mise-en-scene is all-important, but the theater demands a stronger narrative drive.

Sara Holdren, Vulture: Sater and Sheik, who won all the Tonys for Spring Awakening, are clearly interested in the emotional and physical frisson of coming of age - and that's cool. What's less cool is their current show, which often feels simpering and winky rather than raucous and frank; which bounces between limp PG-13 salaciousness and a broadness and sentimentality that bespeak bad children's theater; and which, at only 90 minutes, feels like a very long haul.

Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: The Alice stories are pretty well dog-eared when it comes to popular culture. Once you've inspired both a top-grossing pornographic comedy and a popular Disneyland ride, you know you've arrived. That doesn't mean they can't inspire the occasional new musical. And inspiration isn't the trouble here. Alice by Heart lacks the hard graft of creating fully realized characters and a recognizable world.

David Cote, Observer: The difference: Spring Awakening was a straightforward adaptation of playwright Frank Wedekind's satirical-tragical portrait of hormonal adolescents and hypocritical adults in 19th-century Germany. Sater pared down the text and added his tender, sensual lyrics. Sheik brought his ruminative but groove-smart talent to the table. The result was a potent collision of signifiers-teen rebellion that transcended historical period through emo rock. Alice By Heart is a more muddled concoction, tangled up in too many layers of reality and fantasy, trauma and whimsy, to deliver its emotional payload.

Jesse Oxfeld, New York Stage Review- This story, co-written with Jessie Nelson, who also directs and previously wrote the book for Waitress, is, I guess, also about sexual awakening. In truth it's hard to tell. The script is so unclear, and the staging so busily distracting, that it's nearly impossible to tell what's going on.

Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review: None of those collaborators has forged a more enduring or fortuitous partnership than Steven Sater, lyricist and librettist for Spring Awakening and now for Sheik's latest project, Alice By Heart, a darkly whimsical, utterly transporting musical that recalls Awakening both in its general focus-on anxious, pining youths who must pay the price for their elders' folly-and the lush, often melancholy but exhilarating beauty of its score.

Frank Rizzo, Variety: The cast is solid, though the peripheral characters are thinly drawn even as their surreal alter egos revel in extravagance. Wesley Taylor has an especially fine time as the Mad Hatter, and Andrew Kober takes on five roles with flair, including King of Hearts and an imposing Jabberwocky.

But individual characters or moments or melodies aren't enough. Though a coming-of-age approach gives this Alice some distinction, a wonder it is not.

Donna Herman, New York Theatre Guide: 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.

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