Discounting its Lewis Caroll source material, there can be no less appropriate name for the new evening of Frank Wildhorn pandering than Wonderland. It’s predictably a modern slant on the story with a music video vocabulary and a storytelling sensibility borne of by-the-numbers sentimentality. Then again, when pop music record company executives try to stake a claim in musical theatre territory (and whatever else Frank Wildhorn may be, a record company executive from the pop world is tippy top of his resume) what else have they to bring to the party but what they know? Or at any rate, what they believe works?
So one can’t really accuse Wonderland of being cynical (I wonder if one can even write a musical cynically—it seems to require a kind of chuckleheaded faith in overcoming overwhelming odds, and I speak from experience)—but there does seem at least to be a heavy layer of arrogance. For while it’s perfectly okay to bring what you know to the party, it’s less okay not to learn what the party’s about; and no matter what musicals its creators (composer Wildhorn, lyricist/co-librettist Jack Murphy and director/co-librettist Gregory Boyd) may be familiar with, one gets the sense that they don’t really understand how they were created…or more exactingly, how they were gestated, how conception and ideation informed the minute steps of their development. Wonderland doesn’t come off as an amalgam of record philosophy vs musical theatre fundamentalism. It seems like an overriding. Like something slapdashed into an approximate form.
In this version, there’s a bit of bait and switch. We meet a young girl who is not, as it turns out, Alice, but Alice’s daughter Edwina (the gifted but annoyingly precocious Carly Rose Sonnenclar), at the house of her grandmother (Karen Mason), where she and her mother are staying in the wake of a separation between Edwina’s mom and father. When Alice arrives, we learn she’s an overworked, harried schoolteacher (Janet Decal) who has just hit her head exiting an elevator under repairs. Soon enough, you guessed it, she swoons and enters Wonderland and…well, there are all sorts of modern, anachronistic, anomalous and sometimes ethnic riffs on the classic characters, such as the White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer), the Cheshire Cat, aka El Gato (Jose Llana), the White Knight (Darren Ritchie)…and the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) is a power hungry woman who covets the throne of the Queen of Hearts (Ms. Mason again), and plots to get it with her henchman, or henchmarchhare Morris (Danny Stiles). It’s all quite as glib and facile as it sounds, with songs and dances to match that facility. It’s all also kind of emptily attractive and immediately forgettable.
Not incidentally, Wonderland put me in mind of a cartoon special from the Hanna-Barbera studios, circa 1966. It was similarly an updated Alice, entitled The New Alice in Wonderland or: What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?(While chasing her runaway puppy Fluff, teenage Alice falls through her TV set into Wonderland.) The script was by comedian Bill Dana—who was also known by the name of his immigrant character, Jose Jimenez—and Dana also voiced the White Knight (as Jimenez). The caterpillar was two guys—who happened to be Fred Flintstone (Alan Reed speaking/Henry Corden singing) and Barney Rubble (Mel Blanc)—in a two-headed caterpillar costume; Howard Morris was the White Rabbit, Zsa Zsa Gabor the Queen of Hearts, and Sammy Davis Jr. voiced the swingin’ Cheshire Cat who sang the groovy subtitle song. Several other celebrities had cameos as well. Voice-over's perpetual teenager Janet Waldo provided Alice's speaking voice, and Doris Drew—a jazz-and-studio singer with a unique and easy swing. who had released but a single album in the late 50s called Delightful—which has had a recent CD re-release!—provided nicely-nuanced crooning for Alice's singing voice. And the songs, well worth the croon, were by the team from Bye, Bye Birdie: composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams. (This sidebar will be relevant later: The script was shortly thereafter adapted for a monaural vinyl LP record version [on Hanna-Barbera's own label], which retains the entire score with the original orchestrations and loses about half the original cast. Likely for contractual and cost reasons, the record iteration swapped in veteran voiceover players for most of the celebrity players—except for scripter Bill Dana, whose White Knight/Jose Jimenez was inimitable and irreplaceable—but surprisingly, the delivery loses no luster: Don Messick's White Rabbit has every bit the bubbly bounce and charm of Mr. Morris's; astonishingly, an even better Cat is voiced and sung by Scatman Crothers; and Henry Corden—who would become the official voice of Fred Flintstone after Alan Reed's death—takes on Fred's dialogue as well as his part in the caterpillar song. And I think that's an uncredited June Foray standing in for Ms. Gabor. Others, adding more voices to those they provided in the special, include Messick, Blanc and Allan Melvin.)
its way, the 1966 animated update is as steeped in populism and certainly no
profound than Broadway's current Wonderland, and, with its
falling-through-the-TV riff as a tacit but transparent rationale,
celebrity-obsessed as well—but I had to ask myself why its 50 minutes
animation were—are—so superior to the big Broadway extravaganza. And
all I could come
was authenticity. At that time, the notion of a hip, swingin’,
contemporary spin on Alice was
idea; its hodgepodge of guest voices was almost as
as the hippie movement—in fact, may have indirectly been a consequence
the era’s rebelliousness, as filtered through an “establishment” creative team—and
whatever one may say of its achievements or failings (and God knows, it
never been hailed as a masterpiece), it was just a little bit
its creators don’t seem to know how dangerous it was, and therein lies
heart. Bill Dana’s script is both sly and wide-eyed (rather like the
of Clark Gesner) and the Strouse-Adams score is likewise both innocent
showbizzy. (By the way, if you’re curious, there are a number of clips
special on YouTube; and a free MP3 zip archive download of the vinyl LP
version can be found here, among several other places:
http://www.megaupload.com/?d=C9MST6UW. There has never been a VHS or
DVD release of the cartoon, and the briefly-available LP has been out
of print for 45 years, its content never having been re-released,
digitally or otherwise; so you're not operating in much of a moral gray
area to take advantage.)
But Wildhorn’s Wonderland…not so much with the authenticity. It all feels calculated, and not a little like an industrial. And for all its modern trappings, I guess…old too. An updated fairy tale is not such a new idea anymore; and the only thing about it that can be made new is the freshness of its references. And how long before they get old?
Not dull, Wonderland, not unprofessional, not even unentertaining. The problem is, for all that, it’s not much of anything.Go to David Spencer's Profile