by Brian Scott Lipton
Lewis Carroll’s Victorian-era masterpiece Alice in Wonderland has sparked the theatrical imagination of such diverse talents as Eva Le Gallienne, Elizabeth Swados and Frank Wildhorn. Now, in Alice By Heart, at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, Spring Awakening co-creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater and Waitress librettist Jessie Nelson (also serving here as director) take us down the proverbial rabbit hole once more, and the journey is simultaneously inventive and audacious and muddled and maddening.
The team’s conceit is clever enough: stuck in a makeshift London bomb shelter in 1941, headstrong teenager Alice Spencer (the strong-voiced Molly Gordon) decides to try to save her dying childhood friend—and true love—Albert Hallam (handsome, soulful Colton Ryan) by once again reading their favorite book, somehow convinced that if he holds onto the last page, his TB will magically disappear. But once an exasperated nurse (Grace McLean, who later re-emerges as a nasty Queen of Hearts) tears up the beloved manuscript, Alice must try to recite Carroll’s book by memory (aka “by heart”), which is a trickier task than intended.
The overriding arc of the piece is that, faced with Albert’s impending death, Alice finally (yes, finally!) grasps the coming-of-age moral imbedded in Carroll’s book: she must learn that she can—and must—keep growing, defy authority when necessary, and, above all, face the loss of Albert. It’s a fairly simple message that, while stirring, gets buried time and again in the overly elaborate staging of various chapters from Carroll’s book, many of which strike me as the result of some weird reality show challenge.
Yes, there’s no denying the extraordinary creativity on display, from Edward Pierce’s bleak underground set to Paloma Young’s fantastic costumes to the striking movements created by co-choreographers Rick and Jeff Kuperman (whose work, consciously or not, strongly echoes what the great Bill T. Jones crafted for Spring Awakening). And the Herculean efforts of the versatile cast (which includes such familiar faces as the always-welcome Wesley Taylor and Andrew Kober) are often quite remarkable.
But most of the musical numbers, which combine Sheik’s gorgeous, sometimes ethereal tunes with Sater’s ultra-poetic lyrics, really do little to illuminate the show’s themes. Admittedly, some fare better than others, including the lovely, philosophical “Some Things Fall Away,” performed by the Cheshire Cat (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in an impressive NYC debut).
Meanwhile, the double-entendre-filled “Manage Your Flamingo,” led by a cross-dressing Noah Galvin (who hands in the show’s funniest performance), and “Chillin the Regrets,” a funkified number headlined by the slinky caterpillar (a sexy Heath Saunders) successfully move Carroll’s work from page to stage. Conversely, setting the classic poem “Jabberwocky” to music—here entitled “Brillig Brillig”—accomplishes nothing, while much of the score never rises above the instantly forgettable.
Indeed, what’s most frustrating about the 90-minute show is one’s awareness that a beating heart throbs beneath the extravagant trappings of Alice By Heart, yet one can’t always hear it above the din.
Alice By Heart. Through April 7 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space (511 West 52nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.mcctheater.org
Photos: Deen van Meer