First, that this cutting-edge piece of new musical theatre put out there by Chicagoland luminaries Michael Mahler and Rachel Rockwell is not merely for children. The score is a blend of rock and pop, lyrics are witty and sharp and the choreography and staging is typical of that delivered by the best in the business.
Second, that this is a unique opportunity for Chicagoland patrons to get in on the ground floor of a 75-minute work that is destined for further development, additional stagings and, very possibly, future epic status.
Because above all, this production brings its audience to ponder the concept of wonder. And really, what better compliment can any piece of art receive?
Based on the 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the work of English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Wonderland is the story of a bored 7-1/2-year-old (exactly) Alice, falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. The tale plays with logic, bringing its appeal to adults as well as children. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre. Its narrative course and structure, characters and imagery have been enormously influential in both popular culture and literature, especially in the fantasy genre. (The source for most of this summary, along with a lot more detail, is here.)
Add to this description a terrific songbook composed by Mahler with lyrics by Mahler and Rockwell, a greater focus on Alice’s journey and the lessons she learns along the way (think a mix of “There’s no place like home” and “Girl power”) and top-notch performances and staging.
Performed at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts on a large, fantastic stage and intimate 218-seat house, Wonderland opens with the rocking title song and quickly morphs from black and white into color. Stunning 3-D-like projections created by Mike Tutaj deserve to make him a professional in great demand. His work adds depth to exquisitely showcase Kevin Depinet‘s set and Mara Blumenfeld‘s costumes.
Young star Ariana D. Burks truly shines as Alice with the right amount of sass, class and a crystal clear voice. (At alternate performances, Isabelle Roberts performs this role.) Burks’ rendition of the ballad “Feeling Small” is a pop hit waiting to happen that really ought to be released as a single. The closing song, “Believe in the Impossible,” is another single-worthy entry in a strong songbook.
Highlight performances among Alice’s terrific supporting cast include Molly Callahan as a Kinky Boots-esque Queen of Hearts with anger issues, Andrew Mueller as a hugely entertaining Cheshire Cat, Adam Michaels as the rocking March Hare/King of Hearts and Matt Deitchman as the memorable White Rabbit. Indeed Wonderland‘s entire ensemble is made up of first-rate actors, singers and musicians.
Some muddled sound issues and an awkward resetting of the keyboard following a piece of live music choreography were the two noticeable nits at the reviewed performance. But neither of these takes away from the genuine enjoyment of this piece overall.
Indeed, this invitation to a musical ground floor should be accepted by patrons of all ages from throughout Chicagoland. It’s a call to ponder the concept of wonder; and answering the call might just bring about believing six impossible things before breakfast.
Just how cool is that?!
The world premiere of “Wonderland, Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure,” presented by Chicago Children’s Theatre, runs through May 24 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Tickets ($10 – $38) and more information are available online here or by phone at (872) 222-9555.
Rachel Rockwell’s Director’s Note:
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is often referred to as a “moralless fairytale.” While most hero journeys are about the final victory or lesson, this story is really about the journey itself. You don’t have to be “seven and a half exactly” to feel as though you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, where things are devoid of logic and no one plays by what you thought were the rules. But Alice isn’t just a stranger in a strange land, she is also in the in-between of her own childhood: too small to make her own decisions, and too big not to be held accountable for her own actions. I think there are no other literary works that capture the yearning and struggle better than the Alice stories. When Michael and I were determining how to theatricalize this story that we both love, we decided playing with musical genres would be an interesting way to contrast the individual encounters that make up the whole of Alice’s journey. We also believed that by bringing the music right into the laps of the audience, you would be able to experience, viscerally, what Alice feels as she navigates the excitintg yet unfamiliar territory and eventually finds her own voice. Thank you to Chicago Children’s Theatre for “believing in the impossible.”