Wednesday, March 20, 2019

187 (2018-2019): Review: ALICE BY HEART (seen March 19, 2019)

“Curiouser and Curiouser”

I find it curiouser and curiouser that some theatre artists continue to believe that what the theatre needs now is yet another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s mid-19th-century books about a girl named Alice. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have been dramatized, cinematized, musicalized, pornographied, and adapted into or retold in every kind of performance and literature.
Colton Ryan, Molly Gordon. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Why, I wonder, do we need yet another version, especially if, like Alice by Heart—the 90-minute musical that inaugurates the Newman Mills Theater in the MCC’s new Robert W. Wilson Theater Space—it’s set (for no discernible reason) in a bomb shelter cum London Underground during World War II?
Molly Gordon, Colton Ryan. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Surely not because it updates the material with modern profanity, sexual humor, and drug use, all of which have been done before. Nor do the few minor Trumpian digs (“Lock her up,” for example) justify the adaptation. (On the other hand, I can imagine a madhouse satire devoted to the administration, perhaps called Ivanka in Trumpland, with the president as the King of Tarts.)
Molly Gordon, Grace McLean, and company. Photo: Deen van Meer.
While I recognize the literary significance of Alice’s nonsensical but symbolic adventures, I’ve never seen what makes them so persistently seductive for theatre people, aside from the opportunities they offer imaginative set, costume, and lighting designers, or inventive directors and choreographers. In the present case, those functions are marvelously handled by Edward Pierce (set), Paloma Young (costumes), Bradley King (lights), co-librettist Jessie Nelson (direction), and Rick and Jeff Kuperman (choreography).
Company of Alice by Heart. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Alice by Heart is yet another in a long line of stage adaptations, some good, some bad, going back at least as far as an 1886 West End musical pantomime, with notable later American examples being offered by creative notables as diverse as Eva Le Gallienne, whose Tenniel-inspired version was first seen in 1932, and, among many others, Andre Gregory, whose Grotowski-influenced rendering reflected the experimental trends of the early 1970s.
Molly Gordon, Colton Ryan, and company. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Which isn’t to say Alice by Heart doesn’t have its pleasures. The premise of its book, by Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), doubling as lyricist, and the aforementioned Nelson (book for Waitress), is that, during the Blitz of 1941, an Underground station—designed with a huge overhead clock to emphasize the theme of time’s passing (the show itself was developed over seven years!)—has been converted into a ward for wounded or ill young people.  
Molly Gordon. Photo: Deen van Meer.
This is an assorted bunch of eccentrics who are just one step away from transmogrifying into the creatures and characters of Alice Spencer’s (Molly Gordon) imagination. Their general youthfulness allows for the occasional bit about blossoming sexuality, including Alice’s suddenly blooming bosom, emphasized in one of the show’s several uses of shadow-play.
Noah Galvin. Photo: Deen van Meer.
One is Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan, who also plays the White Rabbit and the March Hare), Alice’s “dearest friend”—and incipient love interest. Dying of tuberculosis, he's quarantined by the officious Red Cross doctor (Andrew Kober, also the King of Hearts, Jabberwocky, and Mock Turtle) and nasty nurse (Grace McLean, also the Queen of Hearts and Magpie). With the world outside being blasted to smithereens, Alice wants to soothe Alfred by reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Molly Gordon and company. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Prevented by the nurse from doing so, Alice begins reciting the story by heart, which inspires the show to morph into Alfred’s fever dream of what he’s hearing. The dynamic cast of 12 (all but Gordon playing more than one role) achieves this by using supposedly found objects, like a ladder, crates, cots, sheets, tables, and chests, to offer a creatively vibrant performance.
 Colton Ryan, Wesley Taylor, Zachary Infante, Molly Gordon. Photo: Deen van Meer.
Thus do we meet iconic figures like the Mad Hatter (Wesley Taylor), the Caterpillar (Heath Saunders), the Duchess (Noah Galvin), and, among others, the Cheshire Cat (Kim Blanck). Familiar as they are, the fast-moving script is nonetheless confusing, there’s little sense of plot progress, and the lyrics accompanying Duncan Sheik’s driving, quickly forgotten, pop/rock-tuned, 17-song score often muddled.
Noah Galvin, Zachary Infante, Mia DiLena, Wesley Taylor, Heath Saunders, Nkeki Obi Melekwe, Molly Gordon, Colton Ryan. Photo: Deen van Meer. 
There are several very clever visual moments, one being the Caterpillar scene (there are two such creatures here) in which Alice gets a hookah-high with the help of the ensemble formed into a multi-limbed creepy crawler, thanks to their hands and forearms being encased in colorful, knitted sleeves. Another is the Mock Turtle number, when the ensemble appears in khaki British military uniforms with green metal helmets, creating a shell-like encasement.
Molly Gordon, Andrew Kober, and company. Photo: Deen van Meer.
All the performers—each of whom can dance and sing, some with acrobatic skills—are highly talented (although their British accents come and go, being especially gone during the songs). Gordon and Ryan have a nice chemistry as the leads and the supporting company works very hard to bring their offbeat roles to life.
Molly Gordon, Andrew Kober, Noah Galvin, Grace McLean, and company. Photo: Deen van Meer.
The trouble is that they’ve been directed to play everything in the broadest way, with lots of mugging, shouting, and even screaming. Some theatregoers find this kind of histrionics funny—as if anything over the top is, by definition, laugh-worthy. Others, though, when witnessing some of the more egregiously exaggerated examples, may begin looking to escape via the nearest rabbit hole.
Molly Gordon. Photo: Deen van Meer.
A final note: the Newman Mills is an expansive venue, much wider than it is deep. This allows for a quite impressive setting. A consequence, however, is that it doesn’t provide full visibility for those in the closer aisle seats, where the view is rather skewed, except for scenes directly in front of you. So, if you have a choice, sit further back, since you’re never going to be that far away from the stage in this relatively shallow space.

Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Newman Mills Theater
511 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through April 7