BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
It’s risky business to fiddle overmuch with a beloved classic. The makers of the new Broadway musical “Wonderland” have framed Lewis Carroll’s quirky “Alice” novels in a modern situation and given some questionable spins to their stories as well as to the fantastical characters in them.
Bowing on Sunday at the Marquis Theater, “Wonderland” sports good performances, snazzy costumes and even some attractive tunes by Frank Wildhorn but writer-director Gregory Boyd’s approach proves pointless because it sheds no bright or at least interesting 21st-century insights on the Victorian material.
In Boyd’s version, Alice (Janet Dacal) is a 30s-something mom and would-be writer whose marriage is rocky. The stressed Alice descends in the service elevator of her Queens building to the underground regions where Carroll’s eccentric characters are skewed differently. For instance, the Cheshire Cat is now El Gato (Jose Llana), a gyrating Latin lothario, while the White Knight is a Dudley Do-Right-ish hero named Jack (Darren Ritchie) backstopped by four polo players.
Most critically, the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle) is transmogrified by Boyd into an evil villainess who fiendishly schemes to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (Karen Mason) unless Alice and her new chums can figure out how to save – well, after a first act of who-am-I songs, the second act of “Wonderland” strives to become a comical thriller. In the two-hour process, Alice rediscovers her creative inner child.
Okay, it’s a concept. Didn’t do anything for me, but it’s a concept. Somehow I get a feeling that many Broadway customers are not going to buy it either.
Whatever, the plot accommodates a series of dizzy production numbers driven by Wildhorn’s cheerful music that sounds rather ‘80s in its pop mode. The composer contributes a brightly variegated score that registers best in its ebullient upbeat songs rather than the overblown ballads, which tend to be wistful in intent but bombastic in effect.
Perhaps the cleverest composition is “One Knight,” a funny send-up of boy band-style swoon tunes that offers sly lyrics by Jack Murphy and bust-a-move choreography by Marguerite Derricks.
The performances are able, if not brilliant. Nicely holding her own among far more florid performances, Dacal’s relatively quiet portrayal of Alice gives the extremely busy musical a pensive central figure that contrasts against the general antics.
Boyd’s fast-paced production at times achieves an appropriately circus-like atmosphere thanks in part to designer Neil Patel’s flashy sets and particularly Susan Hilferty’s imaginative costumes that occasionally reference the novels’ famous John Tenniel illustrations.
“Wonderland” continues at the Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway at 46th St., New York. Call (877) 250-2929 or visit www.wonderlandonbroadway.com.