Alice in an Updated Wonderland Shakes Things Up

by Kelli Kennedy, A.P. on January 31, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. — The Mad Hatter had always been a burlesque vixen in Frank Wildhorn’s mind.

The classic image of a graying male oddball in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” just wasn’t relevant to Wildhorn as he toyed with the idea of putting his own twist on the classic children’s novel.

So now the Mad Hatter is a woman, her tea party includes gothic club-goers – wearing a mix of Victorian couture and outfits Lady Gaga might slip on – and a grown-up Alice, played by Janet Dacal, is wooed by a ’90s boy band (led by Darren Ritchie) in the deconstructed and updated adventure “Wonderland – A New Alice. A New Musical.”

“It just so happens that when you go to a place called Wonderland you can make your own rules and invent your own musical vocabularies,” Wildhorn said during a pre-Broadway run in Tampa. The show is set to open April 17 at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.

The musical’s tone is a departure from Wildhorn’s darker material (“Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Civil War” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel”). The often-reinvented fairy tale presented writers (Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd) with a fertile playground of characters – aided by John Tenniel’s book illustrations – but creating the physical Wonderland was technically challenging. Once down the rabbit hole, each scene calls for a new culture.

Alice is now a struggling author in a troubled marriage who tumbles into Wonderland in search of her daughter and finds herself in the process.

She meets a toking caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious) before she’s transported to an urban ghetto with a graffiti-tagged car and meets caliente crooner El Gato (Jose Llana), better known as the Cheshire Cat. Former Miss America Kate Shindle (“Legally Blonde,” “Cabaret”) plays the scheming Mad Hatter.

Set designer Neil Patel (“Oleanna,” “Ring of Fire”) and costumer designer Susan Hilferty (“Wicked,” “Spring Awakening,” “Into the Woods”) had to create several new lands, invoking larger than life images without being campy. And Patel had to find a way to get Alice there quickly.

“We knew we didn’t want the caterpillar on a toadstool,” Patel said. “That’s a place I felt it would be too much, a giant mushroom would be cartoonish.”

Instead, Patel crafted an ornate, bronze velvet chair as the hookah-puffing caterpillar’s perch.

The stage is outlined by an antique silver frame that’s funked up in Wonderland by an LED screen splashed with watercolor images and an automated set moves the audience from rabbit holes to tea parties. Animated video helps Alice crash through the looking glass in a kinetic segment that sends her spinning in the air, amid shards of glass.

When Alice first drops into the denizens of Wonderland, the company appears identically dressed in her classic blue-and-white frock – tall, lithe dancers and short men with beards – all pieces of Alice.

“Everything is slightly off … this is a kind of psychological moment where all the Alices come after her to let her know she is no longer on stable ground,” says Hilferty, the Tony-winning costume designer from “Wicked” and “Spring Awakening.”

“Even though there are threads that come from the original Tenniel illustrations, they’ve all been almost dismantled and put back together again.”

At the tea party, the rabbit, caterpillar and cat all don classic men’s suits, altered with tails and fur, while Alice remains in a single fuchsia wrap dress, the center of the frenetic world transforming around her.

Hilferty, who also designed costumes for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus while working on “Wonderland,” used similar whimsy crafting the Queen’s regal threads. A black-and-white dress with a pencil skirt and fan-pleated detail was hand-painted to look like “I took a deck of cards and shuffled it and made it into a dress.”

Alice, played by Cuban-American actress Dacal (“In the Heights”), has been with the project since its inception. Producers were initially taken aback by her curly, red hair – a shock from the fair-haired fairy tale Alice.

“When you first look at Janet, you think `that’s not what Alice looks like’ but, of course, like the poster says it’s a new Alice, a new day and a new adventure,” said Wildhorn. “She walked in the room and blew everybody away.”

The $15 million, 25-member cast musical was only four songs and a rough plot when Wildhorn approached producer Judy Lisi in 2007. Since then, songs and cast members have come and gone following the Tampa opening in late 2009, a three-week run in Houston and a pre-Broadway run in Tampa.

Wildhorn, who taught himself to play the piano as a teen to pick up girls, says he’s always itching to write more songs.

“That’s the most fun thing in the world for me. So I always overwrite. For ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ I probably wrote 80 songs.”

The fate of the “Wonderland” castoffs?

Off with their heads.

Well, maybe not quite so dramatic.

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