I tend to have low expectations of plays that are developed by groups, but this Alice, adapted by director Doug Finlayson and his student ensemble, comes closer to the real magical feel of Wonderland than any other I've seen (certainly including Disney). That magic begins right in the curtain speech, believe it or not. Now I generally hold that curtain speeches should be totally banned from the theatre, but here that plea to silence our cell-phones is sung! And by four splendid voices in bright, ravishing harmony—and with quite clever rhymes. We're in for a lot of fun.
We immediately follow Alice down the rabbit-hole after the White Rabbit. This descent is utterly wonderful! Down, down we come, floating with Alice. Not even the book can give this remarkable sense of kinetic involvement. When Alice tries the magic cake and the magic drink how is she going to grow and shrink before our eyes? Well, Finlayson and his team have discovered how to achieve this with charm and delicious imagination.
This is a student production—actors, designers, builders, everybody—and the whole thing bursts with an irrepressible energy only to be found in youth. Director Finlayson, the only "mature" hand involved, clearly relishes and encourages it.
Much credit is due to scene designer Kody Green, whose strange, evocative Wonderland is perfect for the shifting madness in which the story swirls. The costumes by Abby Dorning and the wigs and make-up by Megan Harshaw are great fun and they make us eager to believe that all these actors are indeed rabbits and cats and gryphons and fish and caterpillars and queens and so on. (And they make the proper obeisance to Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations.) Choreographer Bethany Fay gives us a most amusing Caucus Race and Lobster Quadrille, and I assume she deserves credit for much of the dizzying sweep and swirl that permeates this show. Lights and sound by, respectively, Matthew Rogers and Kathy Ruvuna add beautifully to the atmosphere. And, very importantly, there is original music by Chris Byron Pratt. I was especially impressed by the Duchess' song—a rather mysterious waltz, sung gloriously by Carrie Vaughan. (I really wanted more songs. (C'mon, Chris, couldn't you do us a "Soup of the Evening"?)
Out of this bright, talented, praiseworthy cast of fourteen I'll mention just a few: Ari Axlerod makes a goofily nutty Hatter and Eden Eernissee is a lithe, quick, taut Cheshire Cat. Laura Dohner is a more attractive Queen of Hearts than one expects, but what power! That fierce shower of "Off with his head!"s pours from a generous mouth filled with teeth that are large, bright, many and threatening.
August Stamper is Alice, and she captures the essence of this precociously proper little girl with her strongly-held Victorian manners and views. Her Alice embodies that intrepidity and pluck that sent generations of the Victorian English off to exotic wonderlands around the world . . . to come back with an Empire.
I did feel that the magic—so impressive at first—slackened a bit as the play went on, falling from sheer wonder down to a mere stageful of bright young actors having immense fun. But that first half hour set a very high bar for magic.
It all happens in just sixty-five minutes, and it is a most memorable visit to Wonderland. "Alice in Wonderland" continues at the Webster Conservatory through October 13. For more information: 314-968-7128.