Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, creative talent of the award-winning SPRING AWAKENING, are at it together again, this time in the brand new, splendid Robert W. Wilson Theatre Space at the new MCC Theatre on 52nd Street just west of 10th Avenue, with a version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland that might as well be called "Sexual Deadening”. Alice goes down the rabbit hole from a WWII bomb shelter in the London Underground during the Blitz with her heart set on her dear friend Alfred. The inhabitants of the shelter, all of whom seem traumatized to some degree, show up in Wonderland in a jumbled, out-of-order sequence from Carroll’s book. Alfred suffers from terminal TB. The mean, screaming shelter nurse transforms into the tyrannical QUEEN OF HEARTS. A benignly demented bomb victim, the Cheshire Cat. You get the idea.
A WWI sanatorium (gas masks, TB, shell-shock and all) would be have been a more appropriate setting to the book by Sater with Jessie Nelson, who also directs, than the WWII Underground, but that’s the least of ALICE BY HEART’s problems. Luckily, MCC includes a handy cheat sheet in the PLAYBILL for Carroll’s original creatures. The Caterpillar with his magic mushrooms smoked from a hookah sets Alice on her hallucinatory journey. Alice, when she gets large, focuses on her blooming breasts. The flamingos used in the croquet game are, in effect, penises. Alfred, who appears as White Rabbit, is pre-occupied with time, i.e. doom. Invisible Freud lurks everywhere. Grief, too. (There’s a dirgeful duet between Alice and the Mock Turtle called “Your Shell of Grief”.) The relentless association of sexuality and death gave me, old guy that I am, pause. The reaction of the teenage matinee audience from the City’s performing arts high schools was nonplussed, tepid even to the musical numbers. I don’t know what the kids made of it.
Sheik’s score is OK, peppered with some pleasing pop-rock melodies and soulful ballads. “Down the Hole”, a rock ditty with endearing hooks, bookends the intermission-less 90 minutes. “Still” is a sweet love ballad in duet, with Alice and Alfred. “Isn’t It a Trial” provides an over-the-top number for the whole company of 16, led by the Queen who puts Alice in front of her kangaroo court. My favorite tune was the rock number “The Key Is” which begged to unlock a big, breakout-dance number , but the mood is too consistently dark and the choreography, novel as it is by Rick and Jeff Kuperman, too proscriptive and angular. Though there are all-to-brief splashes of whimsy - Kuperman create a nifty, smooth sliding caterpillar using the whole ensemble - ALICE doesn't trade in joy or spontaneity.
The cast is led by Molly Gordon as Alice who doesn’t have a lot of sexuality (let alone the dark kind) for this Alice. Alfred, played by Colton Ryan, is as wholesome as home-made white bread. I couldn’t figure out who was more camp, Noah Gordon as the Duchess or Grace Mclean as the Queen of Hearts. The impressive set design by Edward Pierce of a vast Underground station looms dark and gloomy and sets the mis-en-scene for the whole production, which, like it or not, is pretty much dark and gloomy.
The most satisfying aspects of seeing ALICE BY HEART, the inaugural production on the Wilson Theatre Space was the experiencing the theatre itself, a wide stage, with a comfortable and spatially proportioned, relatively shallow auditorium of 250 seats on two levels with perfect site lines and impeccable acoustics.
Most gratifying in the talkback after the performance was the exuberant applause and cheers from the teenage audience for members of the cast who were graduates of the same high schools the kids in the audience attended. It was the first free admission performance MCC had in its new facility, a testament to MCC’s vital theatre education outreach to NYC schools. The kids’ reaction was full of life, which was inspiring.
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