Alice in Wonderland has been a part of our collective consciousness since the book’s original release in 1865. Iconic characters like the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and Alice herself are timeless figures of childhood and wonder. Frank Wildhorn’s new musical adaptation, Wonderland, transports the audience to this surreal world through lively pop music, stunning choreography and amazing costumes, whilst remaining true to the book’s themes of identity and self discovery.
The opening scene is a dull cityscape, where Alice (Rachel Wooding), a 40 year old unemployed mother, has just received a letter saying her ex-husband is getting remarried. She is disillusioned with life, pining for a man who, as her daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) points out repeatedly, is never coming back. Her neighbour, Jack (Stephen Webb), desperately tries to make himself noticed by the woman he adores, yet she is so focused on her own misgivings that she doesn’t acknowledge him. Once Alice states she doesn’t want to live int he real world anymore, the White Rabbit appears and whisks the trio off to Wonderland.
As soon as they enter this magical world it becomes apparent they are in a land of fantasy – the vividly coloured lights and intriguing costumes perfectly fit the Wonderland aesthetic. They’re bold, bright to the point of garish, and give a hallucinogenic vibe to the entire stage. The staging was one of the highlights of the show, as you never forgot for one moment where you were.
The characters we all know and love are then introduced fairly quickly, the Caterpillar (Kayi Ushe) and Cheshire Cat (Dominic Owen) getting solo numbers that express their personalities very well. Of particular note is the dancing in these songs: the legs of the caterpillar writhe around the stage, and the cats are lithe and energetic – the dancers truly embody their animal characters.
However, one character I found annoying was Alice herself. Throughout Act 1 she spends a frustratingly long amount of time playing the damsel in distress, waiting for a knight to come and save her. Whilst it is explicitly said in the musical that this crisis of self-confidence is due to her ex-husband ridiculing her and being emotionally abusive, this relationship ended 5 years ago. Even her own daughter is frustrated by her mother’s lack of self-worth. I think that, as a viewer, I would have been more sympathetic if there wasn’t the recurring ‘damsel in distress’ rhetoric that removed all of Alice’s agency and made her a very weak character. It isn’t until she comes back through the Looking Glass that she remembers who she was before and actually gains some presence in the narrative.
It is important to note that the weakness of Alice’s character is purely a scripting issue, and has nothing to do with the wonderful performance that guest star Rachel Wooding gave. Her voice is stunning, with such a wide range and a vulnerability that really suits the softer songs in the show. It also worked exceptionally well with the Mad Hatter’s voice (Natalie McQueen): their duet ‘This is Who I Am’ was my personal favourite song, and really cemented the importance of finding who you are and female empowerment which the production tries to convey.
Overall, Wonderland is a fun musical about rediscovery, and finding the confidence to unapologetically be yourself. It isn’t perfect by any means – aside from the Alice issue, there are several flaws in the plot such as the’s Mad Hatter’s abrupt change of heart back to goodness, and the dialogue can be quite infantile – but it is good-hearted and an imaginative retelling of a traditional story. The songs are catchy, the staging is incredible, and the performances were marvellous. It is a great piece of family entertainment that will thrill the child in all of us, and remind us that we can find the magic of Wonderland in every day life.
Wonderland is currently touring the UK, and will be at the Grand Opera House York 6th – 11th March.