BWW Review: A Place More Magical Than Dreams: MSMT's ALICE IN WONDERLAND Captivates Young and Old
In the opening scene of Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark's Alice in Wonderland, Alice sings of her notion of Wonderland - "a place where nonsense fills the air, a place more magical than dreams" - and in MSMT's Theatre for Young Audiences' original musical version of this classic, witty nonsense is deliciously blended with flights of imagination to create the perfect fantasy that speaks to audiences of all ages.
Using the Lewis Carroll novel as source material, Robin and Clark have created a tightly constructed retelling of the story that includes most of the characters and preserves the essential narrative line, while taking the liberties necessary to contemporize the characters and have them engage the audience in a direct and winning manner. Indeed, much of the new spin comes from use of song and dance to tell the story; The score gives engaging musical solos to each of the cast and employs a variety of styles from standard ballads and Broadway belt, to rock, to patter songs, to jazz, soul, and country western numbers, all with catchy, clever, often disarmingly winsome lyrics. Moreover, the book is tightly written, infused with both amusing gags and colorful characterizations of the beloved Carroll creatures, and it knows how to appeal directly to a young audience with opportunities for interaction and with subtle teaching moments. Finally, there is an underlying complexity to the musical and dramatic structure that appeals consciously to adults and intuitively to children; the vocal score is often complex - take the bravura solos for many of the characters or the densely textured octet in the final moments - and the humor and wisdom make the audience complicit in the story.
Director/choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont (Jada Boggs, Assistant Director) works his magic with the material, staging the dream sequences with a fluidity and cohesiveness that sweeps the audience along, imparting amusing quirkiness to each of the characters, and pacing the action quickly to keep the young audience's attention. Always a highlight of a Dumont musical staging, the choreography sparkles, especially the tap number created for Tweedle Dee and Dum, "Proper Introductions" and the ensemble "Hoedown" in Part II. Music Director Curtis Reynolds elicits idiomatic vocal performances from each cast member and leads the three-person band with flair.
The production, completely created by MSMT interns, is particularly attractive and makes ingenious use of the Newsies set, adding imaginative projections to transform the existing scenery so that the design seems wholly new. Lighting Designer Alexander Stanley conjures up a richly colored palette to bathe the stage and superimposes projections, not only on the drops and portals, but also onto the proscenium and walls of the auditorium; sometimes these swirling geometric shapes spill into the auditorium with dancing with a wild joyfulness that hints at the psychedelic undertones in Carroll's novel, and he creates some dramatic illusions such as the towering Jabberwocky with flashing yellow eyes. Props Master Andrew Canning-Skinner and Paints Charge Michelle Sparks create a series of fantastical objects, among them huge mushrooms, a lip-shaped sofa, iridescent chairs, a whimsical fork [in the road], and a dizzy-angled tea table for the Mad Hatter. The costumes - a share with the Fulton Theatre - are lavish and imaginative, and they have been fitted and coordinated skillfully by Cody Von Ruden. Connor Sherrill's sound design does the work justice in its perfect balance, while Stage Manager Laura Scott insures the well-timed running of the show.
The eleven-person ensemble of young artists is a remarkably talented lot whose utter professionalism speaks to the competitiveness and intensity of the training in MSMT's program, and each gets his moment to shine. Sara Sargent is a note-perfect Alice, both sweet and independent, with a flawless upper class British accent, and she sets the tone for what follows with her lovely rendition of the opening song, "Wonderland." Kevin Murakami makes an endearing White Rabbit, doing justice to "I'm Late" and interacting dynamically with the audience in the "Trial Hoedown." In dual roles, Michael Carrier plays the Caterpillar as a soul brother, who gets a little extra comic mileage out of strutting about in hose and stiletto heels, singing a dynamic "It's All a Part of Life," Then he easily switches gears to portray a cheeky Cockney Mad Hatter, who, together with Taylor Gervais' nutty March Hare and Liz Kershenbaum's spacey Dormouse, makes a manically amusing trio in the tea party and trial scenes. Mel Bills uses her powerful voice to belt out rousing "Jabberwocky" at the same time that she captures The Cheshire Cat's zany combination of awkwardness and showmanship. Mickey White and Natalie Nicole Bellamy as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum respectively make a delightfully wacky pair of twins with Dum mothering and protective of the overly sensitive and dramatic Dee, and their aplomb as tap dancers brings down the house. Tracy Sokat is a haughty and coldly entitled Queen of Hearts, who delivers imperious accounts of "In Command" and "What's the Verdict," while John Pletka is a boyishly appealing Knave of Hearts, who stylishly negotiates the tricky vocal demands of "Have Mercy" and "Final Plea." As the Sunflower, Rebecca René Kelley completes vocal honors of the evening with a beautifully lyrical rendition of "Open Your Eyes," and she also brings the appropriate tart propriety to the speaking role of Alice's older sister, Margaret.
As Alice awakens from her dream, the ensemble drifts onto the stage to join her in a reprise of "Wonderland," singing their praises to the power of the imagination to soar and to bring magic into daily life. Robin and Clark's Alice in Wonderland makes an eloquent case for the belief that dreams are what inspire and transform humanity. Having seen this musical a number of times, I remain struck by the freshness of the material. Though it is now twenty-seven years old and has enjoyed more than ninety productions across the country, it still enchants, amuses, and moves audiences. The secret lies, of course, in the excellence of the writing, but also in those intangible qualities of honesty and heartfelt openness that take hold of an audience - young or old. Given a first class production as MSMT has done here, the experience is irresistibly engaging.
Add to this the professionalism and vision that MSMT has brought to this Theatre for Young Audiences series in the past five years and you have a theatrical adventure that is sure to spread the word that live theatre can offer its own kind of Wonderland.
Photos courtesy of MSMT, Sarah Adams, photographer
Robin & Clark's Alice in Wonderland played for four performances on August 21, 2017, at the Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME. Next years TYA series will feature Cinderella and Pinocchio. For information www.msmt.org 207-725-8769.