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Review: Alice & Wonderland

Oregon Children’s Theatre version of the Carroll classic begs for less speed, more ’shroom—and more breathing room.

By Anne Adams November 1, 2010

Dave Cole stars as a rockin’ rabbit.

"Is it over yet?" piped a child’s voice as Alice finished exuberantly belting that she was "Bored! Bored! Bored!" But it was far from over; in fact, Alice had yet to even fall down the rabbit hole. Fast, loud, and colorful, this musical played on like a human firework show, while I suppressed a strong urge to sneak the kid out for ice cream, and reappear in an hour.

Imagine the sparse, scaffold-style staging of RENT, combined with costumes the Mickey Mouse Club might wear to Burning Man, and a live band playing a relentless onslaught of fast-paced prog-rock with a few new-country twangs. Imagine there’s no speaking, only singing, and no pausing, only rocking. Older kids are mildly amused, but some little kids are pretty confused, and many of the lovable aspects of musical theater get lost in the frenetic mix. That said, there’s nary a bad performer in the bunch; in fact, there are several standouts:

The White Rabbit (Dave Cole, last heard doing justice to Van Morrison numbers in local rock ballet Find Me Beside You ) has a beautiful husky croon, and is an able live guitarist. He hits the script’s few moods with the perfect timing and tone.

The Tweedles Dee and Dum are charming and memorable, in part because they’re lucky: their scene uses the only representational "set" (a beach-scape for their Walrus & Carpenter recitation), and their song, a Caribbean number, forces a slower pace than some of the others. Dee (Eric Little) hits the production’s penultimate high note, and Dum (Tyler Andrew Jones) has a pretty face and a riveting presence. (Having seen Jones in drag before–as Angel in RENT–I think I’d probably even enjoy him as Alice.)

The Queen’s regal bearing carries her nicely through her brief scene, the Cheshire Cat has an awesome grin, and the Caterpillar choreography—a train-style ensemble number with synchronized arm movement—is awfully cute. Humpty Dumpty and the Mock Turtle make a particularly valiant effort to emote and enunciate, and vie for the title of Mr. Personality.

Sarah Catherine Wheatley’s Alice, while not my taste, echoes strongly of Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana, the wildly successful kiddie rock star. So, like it or not, she’s probably doing something right.

Then what’s wrong?

1. Well, on Saturday afternoon, there seemed to be a problem with the sound. Some vox were shorting out, or at least suddenly dropping in volume. I imagine among the hundred switches and sliders, something should be reset: maybe the compression? Maybe merely the relative levels? Or maybe everyone’s headpiece needs to be taped tighter, so it can’t jiggle around? I don’t know. Try everything. These glitches were noticeable.

2. Songs flat-out went too fast. Drummer Dave Muldoon is either a hero for keeping the pace, or a culprit for setting it, on this hurtling speedwagon of a musical. Either way, all the musicians could stand to slow their roll, giving actors more room to ham it up. My guess is, more lyrics would get heard, and the characters would come through stronger. (Think Rocky Horror. Antici…pation.)

3. The most captivating moments were not the wacky ensemble numbers, but whenever a single element was introduced—from the inert paper-lantern moon, to each new character. But these focal points and narrative milestones were too quickly swept along in a hubbub of busy blocking and backup-dancing.

4. Even if star performers were allowed more leeway, there’d still be a lot missing from this version of the story. Alice never changes sizes, never has arguments, never fully delights or despairs. At best, this is an Alice-themed rock concert, and not a play. (More’s the pity that the songwriting isn’t stronger.) I, for one, wished for more of a story arc, and I’m sure a lot of kids will feel the same. To them, I recommend The Little Prince over at Shaking The Tree. But for kids who revel in fast-paced, loud, lighthearted sensory overload, this one may be just the ticket.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There’s plenty of room," said Alice indignantly, and she sat down….

~Lewis Carroll

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