Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes – until Saturday 22 July 2017
Alice in Wonderland has been incarnated on more occasions than I care to remember, but one thing’s for sure, the story never gets old (in my humble opinion) and the magic, craziness and wonder remains as curious as it did when I first read the book by Lewis Carroll.
This musical version with music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Jack Murphy, book by Gregory Boyd & Jack Murphy and directed by Lotte Wakeham – didn’t play out how the way I had expected. In fact the first half I found to be a little slow, the lighting and set creating a murky atmosphere although I found it fascinating that the setting is in a modern period of time. Having Alice (Kerry Ellis) living in a block of flats and working in a call centre job she despises couldn’t have been more current. The arrival of the White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) signalled the shift from real life to fantasy, however I felt that the ensuing transition caused the show to take a distinctly pantomime-style turn. Musical numbers also appeared to be inserted for the sake of it rather than fluidly integrated into the flow of the piece.
In this version, Alice has a daughter called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who is willing her mother to get over her failed marriage and desperately seeks change in their lives. Alice also wants a different life and is not at all at peace with the real world. Neighbour, Jack (Stephen Webb) desperately wants to be a hero and has admired Alice from afar since she first moved in to her flat. The White Rabbit was once a judge who dreamed of being a rabbit and who was able to remain in Wonderland because the Queen of Hearts had cut off his head. It seems that once you are beheaded by the Queen you are permitted to remain in her land and you are reunited with your head! Another distinct difference is that the Mad Hatter is played by a female – which works brilliantly and she and the March Hare (Ben Kerr) have a thing for one another. I loved this spin on the classic tale, insightful in my view.
The arrival of Wendi Peters as The Queen of Hearts was also an unbridled joy, I wager that never will you have witnessed anybody munch on a jam tart so comically and my my my this actor can sing. In fact her vocals rivalled Ellis’s extraordinary and instantly recognisable singing voice. When the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) landed, her bonkers characterisation was glorious and again, captured my waning interest. There was also a stellar performance from Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar and Dominic Owen was a fabulously skittish Cheshire Cat, an intelligent and physical performance was offered by him. Dave Willetts has long been a favourite performer of mine and he didn’t disappoint, this was a different yet intriguing role to watch him play.
Although I took time to warm to the production, the second half was the defining moment and I was glad to have returned after the interval. The musical numbers in the show are engaging, toe-tapping and as an overall soundtrack, they impressed me. I Will Prevail (the Mad Hatter’s big number) is a powerful piece and I Am My Own Invention which is mostly led by the White Rabbit is stunning. Advice From A Caterpillar is a soulful tune and the choreography matched it, perfectly. Equally, The Cat Shoe Shuffle was a highlight, it appeared chaotic and precise all at once. In fact I noted that all choreography seemed to follow a contrary theme which worked brilliantly.
The set is quite a construction to behold and the looking glass is the piece de resistance. Costumes are as spectacular, as would be expected given the story and the Mad Hatter’s outfits are particularly outstanding. Overall, this new musical grew on me and by the finish I felt I’d be keen to see it again.