Alice by Wheelock Family Theater in Boston (5 stars)
ALICE, based on the books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Alice Through the Looking Glass, written by Lewis Carroll; Written and Directed by Andrew Barbato; Musical Director, Robert L. Rucinski; Composer, Lesley DeSantis and Andrew Barbato; Orchestration, Douglas Makuta; Scenic Design, Matthew T. Lazure; Lighting Design, Scott Clyve; Costume Design, Lisa Simpson; Choreographer, Carla Martinez. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre at 200 The Riverway Boston, MA from October 15 through 23.
I could tell the moment I sat down that this was going to be a magical production. On stage was a multi-leveled wooden building, like a fancy house deck, with real tree branches as railings and ivy growing up posts. A camouflaged spiral staircase, eight foot trellises, and Victorian furniture rounded out the fantasy scene that could have been from Hook or Bridge to Terabithia. However, the telltale nod to wearing a “blue dress” from a mother, begging her daughter to not be an embarrassment and prepare for her birthday party in the family’s garden, let us all know that this was ALICE and she was about to have an adventure in Wonderland. There she would find courage, become a leader, and gather skills to transform into a polite and respectable young lady. But first, she had to follow a White Rabbit down the rabbit hole…
The Wheelock Family Theatre (WFT) production of the musical, ALICE, is fresh and different than traditional interpretations. Most notably, adults perform the characters and are on stage for almost all scenes, either in tableau or nodding support of the goings on. The cast is racially and ethnically diverse and there is no skimping on props, “clutter” adding to the fantasy feeling where imagination trails Alice everywhere she goes. The show is closed-captioned, indicating WFT’s commitment to inclusiveness.
After Alice (Maritza Bostic) grew too large, and then too small, the stage broke apart to transform into a raft-type boat with sails and a ship wheel. Bostic has an infectious smile as she takes the helm and demands an immediate start in search of the beautiful garden she has glimpsed through the “tiny door.” As each character is introduced in their respective scenes, I found myself saying, “Awesome” under my breath. The actor inhabiting the role uniquely created a demeanor and personality. Each creature’s costume and color scheme matched the time period perfectly from top hats and vests of prim White Rabbit (Stephen Benson) to the bloomers and lace up shoes of crazy Duchess (Robin Long). While all the sixteen cast members were wonderful, a few portrayals stood out to me.
Julia Talbot, a fourteen year old, pantomimed Dinah and was the puppeteer and voice of the Cheshire Cat. She wore him draped around her shoulders down to her wrist, the ginger cat matching her ruffled peach dress. No stranger to the stage, in her fifth WFT production, Talbot held her own as she appeared and disappeared in and out of trap doors, her catlike movements unmistakable.
Caterpillar (Elbert Joseph) is first seen as a silhouette against an orangey-red postcard “sunset,” sitting on the veranda inhaling his “pipe.” With his formal introduction, he sits atop the spiral staircase with each of the other actors/characters portraying his multiple legs by wearing the same shiny, green, elbow length gloves. He affects a lisp and offers Alice directions to eat the mushroom in order to increase her size. Alice becomes more and more aware that fantasy life, the symbol for childhood, is not making sense.
I recognized Jenna Lea Scott (Frog Footman) from her role as the lead in Hairspray (WFT). Though I didn’t remember a frog in other versions of Alice in Wonderland, I enjoyed the character’s inclusion and song of loneliness. Frog teaches Alice about rudeness.
The White Queen (Aubin Wise) is impressive. One moment she is in a white coat and the next she wears an ankle length cream-colored lace dress and enormous ivory crown, like the chess piece she represents. She channels a young Diana Ross in white gown with full, natural hair, stunningly hitting the mark as a queen. I didn’t get the sense that Alice had to take care of her, as this role-reversal traditionally helps Alice learn how to be an adult, but I did believe she was a role-model for Alice.
The tea party scene was as fabulous as you would expect and hope. Trunks, suitcases, and a toy piano form the table that is set with silver candlesticks and tea cups and saucers stacked six high. Alice is now the one calling out others for being rude. Mad Hatter (Russell Garrett), a very tall man even without the top hat, is hysterical crawling like a crab on the floor in his manic-ness.
Act II, is notable for the Queen of Hearts (Leigh Barrett), her masked ball, and egocentric, privileged quips, such as, “Even with mass poverty and starvation, I have remained unaffected.” The children as young as nine years old enter and exit during several scenes throughout the production, lending an air of playfulness. But it is their portrayal of Flower Buds, with brilliant costuming, that makes the final garden destination, symbolizing transition into young adulthood, a beautiful sight as Alice blossoms on her thirteenth birthday.
Growing up doesn’t have to be as scary as it seems. See ALICE and enter the world where the child is always inside of you. http://www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org/current-season.aspx