OnStage United Kingdom Critic
Right now the European and United Kingdom premiere tour of Wonderland the musical is playing York Grand Opera House. However, back in January I was lucky enough to see the musical on its first press night which was in the Edinburgh Playhouse on Tuesday 24th January 2017.
The musical is a mash up of Lewis Carroll’s novels, “Alice’s adventures in wonderland” and “Alice through the looking glass”. Alice is all grown up, struggling with her recent divorce and has just been fired from her job. She is living with her daughter in a small flat, however everything changes when she, her daughter and her neighbour, Jack, chase a rabbit through a broken lift shaft which leads them to the wonderful world of Wonderland! Where the wicked queen of hearts rules. The looking glass is changing the wonderful characters we have become familiar with into to stronger personalities, none more so than the mad hatter, who isn’t so much mad anymore, but evil! Can Alice get a hold of her life and turn wonderland back to normal?
The musical’s book is written by Gregory Boyd (The Civil War, Jekyll & Hyde and An American in Paris), with music by Frank Wildhorn (Bonnie & Clyde, The Civil War and The Scarlet Pimpernel) and lyrics by Jack Murphy (The Civil War, Rudolf and The count of Monte Cristo). The UK touring production is directed by Lotte Wakeham (associate director of Matilda the musical). The cast I had that evening was Wendi Peters (Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street, Sally in Scarlet Pimpernel, Cindy in Sugar and Emily in Follies) as the queen of hearts, Dave Willets (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, The Phantom in Phantom of the opera and Julian Marsh in 42nd street) as White Rabbit, Kerry Ellis (Elphaba in Wicked the musical, Meat in We Will Rock You the musical and Ellen in Miss Saigon the musical) as Alice and Natalie McQueen (Ensemble Wicked the musical, Young Eponine in Les Miserables and ensemble in Rent) plays the mad hatter.
Before going to see this musical I was apprehensive, this was mainly because I had not heard of Wonderland also I had seen attempts of Alice in wonderland being brought to stage before, they pretty much crashed and burned. So my expectations were not high, however when I entered the Edinburgh playhouse and seen that it was pretty much sold out, along with the promising curtain with the Wonderland logo, I did start to get excited. The opening number “Worst Day” was really catchy and set the tone, making it clear, this is contemporary, definitely not your typical wonderland adaptation.
We were introduced to Alice, who was different than we usually see her characterised, she was weak, almost wallowing in her life. However, there was something appealing about the fact she was an adult, Kerry Ellis’ portrayal of Alice could be forgiven for an average mother struggling with a divorce. I love Kerry and I definitely thought this part was made for her, right enough nearly every part she is given she effortlessly steps into the role brilliantly. Naomi Morris played Alice’s daughter, Ellie, who seemed like the best behaved child on the planet. However, their relationship was cute, but needs something to challenge it, which obviously will happen. As they jumped fell down to wonderland after chasing the white rabbit with their neighbour Jason, there was instantly a difference in the character’s dynamics and the story went from something which is just fictional to full blown fantasy.
The song “Wonderland” is one which is goofy and very catchy, the song is a large company number which introduces us to all the characters of wonderland, minus the queen of hearts and the mad hatter. During this scene and the ones that follow, one thing was really irritating me, it was the pace of the performance, I felt like lines were being rushed, plus it seemed like everything just mushed together in between songs, even if there was a change in scene, it just felt blurred. There was also too much happening on stage, I feel like clarity is something that had to be worked on for this production. Perhaps now that it is further on in the tour and they’ve had time to work on the faults of the production, the clarity has been improved but throughout the performance everything just seemed rushed and way too fast.
The following two numbers are pretty much a showcase of characters, the caterpillar sings “advice from a caterpillar” and the Cheshire cat sings, “cat shoe shuffle”. They are not terribly exciting or memorable moments, the caterpillar scene was alright, the only thing that I would say that let it down was poor dance sequences. I cannot even remember the Cheshire cat’s song because it just didn’t interest me and seemed pointless. Ellie walks through the looking glass and changes into a typical “moody teenager” this transformation is sheer genius and hilarious. Naomi makes this role her own, she is given simplistic and open lines, using this dialogue she creates a brilliant comic character who is one of the highlights within the musical. The song that follows after this is called “One knight” which is Jack’s song after his transformation through the looking glass from a geek into a cool guy, in this song he sings with his “knights” they could be mistaken for 5ive or the backstreet boys, the cheesy song and chorography is brilliant. I really enjoyed this number, apart from the rotating lights blinding me for most of the song. And I was row C in the circle, I was surprised the lights remained that low.
Ellie sings a stunning song which is one of the sweetest within the show “home”. We were then introduced to a very geeky mad hatter, I instantly thought, nope, definitely leaving at the interval if this is the mad hatter, she seemed very high pitched, cookie and not as weird as the mad hatter should be. However, as the scene progressed it was clear something was going to give, Ellie convinced the mad hatter to go through the looking glass. While we wait for this transition, it’s tea time and FINALLY here is Wendi Peters as the queen of hearts, she steps on stage, sings her song “hail the queen”, eats a tart, the audience wait in silence, till she’s finished, she then goes “I’m finished” and walks off. Never in my life have I seen someone have so much presence and control over an audience. Until 2 minutes later when the amazing young talent that is Natalie McQueen steps back on stage as the mad hatter, BUT, shes evil!? “I’m the mad hatter” introduces this new psycho bitch hatter in style. After this we are brought back down to earth as Alice and Jack have a generic romantic song named “love begins”, yawn. Alice then decides she needs to step through the looking glass to gain control of her young daughter and the mad hatter, who wants to defeat the queen of hearts. The first act of the show is closed with an insanely catchy and brilliantly belted (by Kerry of course) song called “through the looking glass”.
Act two opens with Natalie McQueen’s stunning song, “I will prevail”, which sees the mad hatter battling with her inner self, this young actress definitely has a very promising future ahead of her, the transfer between the cookie mad hatter to the evil dark side of this much loved character, is massive. Alice is seen away from the hatter’s evil madness, consulting the wise white rabbit, the pair have a very sweet, lovely duet, their relationship is almost like a father and daughter duo, it’s something that isn’t really seen commonly in musical theatre as usually a duet between a man and women is a love song declaring their feelings for one another therefore this was something fresh. Meanwhile, the hatter imprisons Ellie after an argument which means that Alice needs to come to the rescue. Two songs are lined up during this scene, “home reprise”, which is sung by Ellie remembering her old life and old self. “Then once more I can see” which is sung by Alice to show the hatter that it’s better to be who you are. The best duet by far within this production is the song, is the song that follows named “this is who I am” it is sung by Alice and the mad hatter (Kerry and Natalie), it was stunning, possibly one of the best duets I have seen within musical theatre, it reminded me of “for good” from wicked. Wonderland definitely has tried to structure a musical just like the way wicked was made. The queen of hearts then makes her second appearance of the musical, “off with their heads” sings her second/final song, I feel like Wendi Peters is wasted within this show as even though she is brilliant as the queen of hearts, she is literally in it for ten minutes. Oh and by the way, she is headlined in this show, she’s the first name in the programme, it’s like going to see Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton and he’s on for 10 minutes. We then have two songs, “heroes” and “together” which show our characters missing out on beheading and going home, away from wonderland. The finale is a brilliant song “finding wonderland” which rounds up this show perfectly with Kerry giving one last blast of her fantastic vocals.
The show it’s self isn’t perfect, there is some great numbers which I cannot wait to hear if they release a UK tour album because some of the music within the UK production isn’t on the Broadway cast album. The cast is amazing and is the main support which carries the production, Kerry Ellis and Natalie McQueen are the bright stars in this production, their singing throughout the performance was incredible, the characterisation is hard to get used to at first for this new adaption of Alice and the mad hatter, however if you give them 10 minutes you get used to them and fall in love with Lewis Carroll’s character’s all over again.
Throughout the performance there are three arches, one which is large upstage, one medium size centre stage and one which is small down stage, these arches are meant to signify, the manhole the rabbit jumps down which is featured in the poster for the UK tour. Along these arches there are multi-coloured LED lights. I felt this was a simplistic border which worked brilliantly as the scenery changes were pretty complex. The design is delightful and I feel that it works. The only thing that lets this production down is the pace, the direction does weaken at points as it’s not clear why characters have been placed in specific places. Everything seemed a little to blurred to me, the production didn’t feel confident. However, this was within the first week of this production and I believe if I went to see it now, I would find it to be far more developed. However, I still appreciate it for what it is, it is definitely the most ambitious Alice in wonderland stage adaption I have seen and for that reason it is the best. It still only is 3/5 stars for me as something do need to be improved which, to be honest, probably have been.
The production comes to Glasgow in July, I’ll be returning to see how it’s developed over 6 months. If you love musical theatre and love Lewis Carroll’s classic then go see this bright and contemporary production with some catchy songs.
Please be aware Kerry Ellis is not playing Alice for the full tour and will be replaced by Rachel Wooding.
For more information on tour dates and the musical visit: www.wonderlandthemusical.com