Palace Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 30th April, 2017
A contemporary re-working of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Frank Wildhorn’s joyous Wonderland (originally subtitled Alice’s New Musical Adventure) – with book and lyrics by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy – now makes its long-awaited UK debut some eight years on from the show’s original Tampa premiere, arriving in a drastically re-written and revised version from the negatively received previous incarnations.
Newly adapted by Ava Eldred for the UK production – transporting the action from Queens, New York to an unspecified present day Britain – the updated tale presents Alice as a 40-year old single mum to teenage daughter Ellie, sacked from her job, living in a dingy flat and struggling to cope with the news that her ex-husband Sebastian is getting remarried.
Enter The White Rabbit, who bursts from Alice’s living room sideboard and coaxes Alice, Ellie and their awkward neighbour Jack (who just happens to be madly in love with the ignorant Alice) down the broken lift shaft of their crumbling block of flats (the metaphorical rabbit hole of the novel) and into the bold, arresting Wonderland we all know and love, though once there the central tale feels significantly distorted from Carroll’s original.
In a unique twist, Wonderland‘s Alice is very aware of her new surroundings, relishing the opportunity to escape the real world and explore the strange creatures within, all in the hope of finding her true self. The grandiose Looking Glass now offers Wonderland’s residents the chance to step through the glass, let go of their inhibitions and unleash their inner selves, often with drastic consequences.
Wonderland presents a significantly and intriguingly more feminist version of the story than that which we are used to, setting its primary focus on Natalie McQueen’s antagonistic Mad Hatter (newly returned from the Looking Glass and transformed from a shy hatter to an oppressive dictator, corrupted by power) and her attempts to overthrow the larger than life Queen of Hearts and take full control of Wonderland for herself.
As expected, Kerry Ellis is exceptional as Alice, proving the show’s true driving force and bringing her unique, hard-earned sense of assurance and quality to the production. Whilst the role is far from as demanding as Wicked‘s Elphaba (the role with which Ellis is arguably best associated), Wonderland still allows its leading lady to demonstrate the power of her mezzo-belt with superb effect. Thankfully Ellis is on stage for much of the show’s duration as the piece is at its most effective with her at the core.
Sharing top billing, the vastly experienced Dave Willetts is excellent as The White Rabbit and Wendi Peters certainly makes the most of the bellowing Queen of Hearts, though considering the character is only on stage for about fifteen-minutes in total, the character does feel a little underused.
Natalie McQueen and Stephen Webb are notable standouts as the Mad Hatter and Jack, respectively, with strong supporting performances from Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar, Dominic Owen as the Cheshire Cat and Ben Kerr as the March Hare proving other highlights.
Brilliantly performed by the eight-strong band – under the direction of Alex Parker – Wildhorn’s score is strong for the most part, presenting some moving ballads and dynamic production numbers, though it lacks the towering spark of his magnum opus Jekyll & Hyde, with many numbers feeling a little too similar and often blending into one.
Lotte Wakeham’s pacey, escapist production brilliantly evokes the innovation and madness of the text without overshadowing the more tender moments that exist outside the artificial Wonderland, further enhanced by Andrew Riley’s strong set design and Nick Riching’s hallucinatory lighting design, though few more visual fireworks would not go amiss.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10-minutes (approx.) (including one 20-minute interval)
Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: Saturday 30th April, 2017
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