Theatre Review: Frank Wildhorn’s “Wonderland”

Last Wednesday (25th January), my best friend and I went to see a performance of Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Loosely based on the two Lewis Carroll books about Alice (in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass), the performance had all the odds stacked in its favour for being absolutely terrific: Wonderland aesthetic with Frank Wildhorn (composer of Jekyll and Hyde) music – what’s not to love?!

wonderland-dormouse

Adorable Dormouse costume

With appearances from the Caterpillar, Queen of Hearts and Cheshire Cat from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and the Tweedle twins and Humpty Dumpty from ‘Through the Looking Glass’, the aesthetic of Wonderland was certainly present, and at times very enjoyable. I thought the Dormouse, who carried a pillow with her at all times like a satchel, was adorable. The set-design was fantastic, with oppressive grey apartment buildings in the real world and clever uses of perspective to make the Mad Tea Table, in Wonderland, seem to extend backwards forever. Even the romantic sub-plot between the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, although not necessarily a required addition, was sweetly acted and became somewhat plot-relevant by the end.

 

The overall ambiance, however, was unfortunately marred by audio problems – in particular the number where Alice, her neighbour Jack, and her daughter Ellie, first appear in Wonderland. What ought to have been an immersive introduction to Wonderland’s craziness, was drowned out by the drumkit, so the audience was kept guessing what the end of each line of singing contained:

“Welcome to Wonder-CRASH
My God, it’s half-past-CRASH
Who cares if you came CRASH
We don’t care where CRASH CRASH
You’re gonna fit right CRASH
A little fun de-CRASH
A little crazy CRASH
Don’t get all in CRASH CRASH!”

I’d listened to the soundtrack several times beforehand, and I still struggled to work out what the missing words were. I imagine it would have been even more difficult for a first-time listener. It’s a real shame because some of Frank Wildhorn’s music is very clever and many of the lyrics are amusing. For example, there is a recurring motif for the songs sung by Wonderland characters where the music tumbles chromatically downwards, invoking the fall down the rabbit hole and descent into madness. However, this can only be appreciated if you aren’t distracted trying to block out the instrumental accompaniments in order to pick up the lyrics being sung. It’s such a pity, because ordinarily the music would definitely be the best aspect of this musical.

The plot itself is somewhat formulaic, all about accepting who you are and finding yourself. Once in Wonderland, Alice, Jack and Ellie come across a magic Looking Glass that, when entered, flips a person’s personality traits, revealing the “you that you have been suppressing”. Alice’s daughter, Ellie, who has had to grow up too fast, enters the mirror and emerges as a petulant teenager; while the shy neighbour, Jack, transforms into a confident Elvis-style swinger, acquires a set of backup singers from somewhere, and finally admits to Alice that he has a crush on her.

The delightfully sarcastic Looking Glass, naturally, has a habit of reflecting the characters’ dialogue back at them, making for some of the funniest moments in the entire production:

Alice: Do you think this is a good idea?
Looking Glass: Do you think this is a good idea?
Alice: I don’t know!
Looking Glass: Then I don’t know either.

That said, the inclusion of the Looking Glass did cheapen any development the characters underwent as a result of passing through it. This wasn’t a particular problem for the examples mentioned above, which were mostly played for comedy, but the entire conflict of the first act centred around Alice’s inability to move on from her abusive ex-husband. Because in actuality this can be a serious problem that’s very difficult to overcome, the sequence where Alice enters a mirror and is suddenly miraculously cured of her trauma felt unearned and a little disrespectful.

Also, given that the character-altering Looking Glass exists in this setting, it was strange that the evil Queen of Hearts was neither forced nor convinced to enter the Looking Glass at any point and actually remained a tyrannical dictator after Alice, Jack and Ellie had returned to the real world. This seemed oddly inconsistent with the overarching theme of overthrowing tyranny.

Weirdly, given the inclusion of a past-abuse subplot and a series of dance numbers set in the Mad Hatter’s sweatshop-style hat factory, I feel the production somewhat struggled to portray the darker version of Wonderland that it seemed to be trying to create. Part of this could have been improved by making the resolutions to the problems less simplistic than going through a magic Looking Glass, but I also felt the Mad Hatter was too endearing in her altered evil form. The main villain number ‘I Will Prevail’ is a menacing threat that simply doesn’t fit with the incompetent, bossy madam that the Hatter becomes after her transformation.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the sweatshop number, where tap shoes were used to symbolise the grueling labour that the Wonderland folk were being forced to endure. The fact that the Hatter actually lampshaded this, demanding her workers wear quieter shoes, was a very nice touch. I liked the Dormouse here who, of course, kept falling asleep on the job, lying on her pillow and tap dancing from the floor as the others lined up around her. When the March Hare, trying to convince the Hatter that the workers needed a break, admits that he thinks the Dormouse might be dying, I was disappointingly underwhelmed. Part of this could be put down to confusion – it had earlier been established that Wonderland folk can’t die – but I was also painfully aware that in a darker production with higher stakes this could have been a genuinely poignant moment.

Still, I agreed with the Hatter when she exclaimed, “I love that cute little Dormouse!” The Dormouse was definitely the sweetest character (and, of course, doesn’t die in the end!).

Overall, I’m conflicted about this production of Wonderland. The sections that were good were extremely enjoyable, but there were several major problems that, sadly, prevented it from being a truly satisfying experience.