Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

With summer fast approaching, Childsplay’s 2016-2017 Season For Families is drawing to a close, and as with anything associated with a production from the valley’s premiere jewel in the theatrical crown, it’s final presentation comes with a surprise.

The show is Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure, now performing weekends at Tempe Center for the Arts until May 21, and the surprise is that all the rock ‘n roll is played by the actors; they’re the band. The other surprise is that the rock ‘n roll is not simply good, it’s really good. When Alice (Michelle Chin) sits bored at her piano, running through her usual key-note practices and singing of a Lazy Day, she suddenly breaks rhythm and hits those keys with a fresh vigor, leaping off into pop/rock. “But if I had a steed, I would speed from this lazy day.”

With music and lyrics from Michael Mahler – he recently added some fresh lyrics to the new London production of Miss Saigon – and a book with additional lyrics from Rachel Rockwell – she appeared on Broadway in Mamma Mia and directed several productions for children’s theatre in Chicago – the pedigree behind the writing is high, and it shows. This is a great score.

The plot is an 80-minute condensed version of the two classic Lewis Carroll novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, and even though there’s a six month difference between the two books, as with most adaptations, it all combines into one big adventure for the little girl who begins the day feeling bored.

Before the story begins, the actors/band assemble, one by one, with their instruments at the foot of the stage, and true to character, it’s the White Rabbit (Kyle Sorrell) who turns up late, with apologies. He’s also late for his date after he accidentally bumps into Alice, electric guitar in hand, on his way to Wonderland. After a brief exchange, realizing he’s behind time, he declares, “I gotta bounce,” and off he goes. And of course, young Alice – “I’m seven and a half years, exactly” –  follows.

With great invention that drew audible gasps from young audience members seated behind, a silhouetted Alice, looking for adventure, glides down a long passage until she hits the bottom and lands in Wonderland. “I’d say it’s begun,” she announces, climbing to her feet.

From there, the tale truly begins, incorporating the familiar characters that most adults already know, and ones that younger members of the audience will perhaps be meeting for the first time, and they’re all fun. Among them, there’s the meditating Caterpillar (Tommy Strawser) asking of Alice, “Who… are… you?” The Cheshire Cat (Cullen Law) with that famous, enlarged, half-moon grin full of teeth, painted on the back of his violin; Tweedle Dum (Tommy Strawser), Tweddle Dee (Kyle Sorrell); all the nutty gang of the Mad Hatter’s Tea party, including Doormouse (Marshall Vosler), March Hare (Lauren McKay), plus the Hatter himself (Katie McFadzen), and later, Alice’s encounter with the powerhouse rock ‘n roller Red Queen (Lauren McKay). There’s also a very funny encounter with the two, gossipy red roses who want to give Alice a makeover, and a charming Unicorn (Osiris Cuen) who can think of six impossible things to do before breakfast. Musician Danielle Moreau may not be an official Wonderland character, but her presence and musical support is always on view with drums and percussion, that is, until she has to move aside and make way for Alice, who grabs the sticks and beats the skins for a take-no-prisoners drum solo of her own.

There’s a tendency during the more raucous songs for lyrics to drown and clarity momentarily lost, but then again, that’s rock and roll for you; it happens at concerts all the time. Surprisingly, the loss of comprehension is not as frustrating as you might think.  Like all head-banging anthems, it’s the pulsating beat that carries things through, and even if you can’t always hear exactly what’s being sung, you get the idea.

Walt Disney was known for stating he didn’t fully understand Alice in Wonderland, even though he made the famous 1951 animated classic. Perhaps he was trying too hard. As with those who needlessly examine the two novels while searching for secret, adult, subversive meanings, convinced that author Carroll was really writing a scathing satire on society, they’re missing the obvious.  The book is simply literary nonsense populated by eccentric characters exercising logic with clever word play. Childsplay’s high-energy and tons of fun Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure captures that playful, nonsensical spirit. And children will get it without the need to analyze.

Had he seen the show, nineteenth century Carroll might have questioned the volume, and he might have even asked what some of those electronic instruments were called, but watching the actors rock ‘n rolling and banging their heads (before the Red Queen ordered “off with them”) and all for a 21st century audience, I’m sure he would have approved.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Trumble

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