Thursday, April 28, 2011

PETER and ALICE: Reconnecting With My Inner Child

Adam Chanler-Bedrat (Peter) and Christian Borle (Black Stache)

When I wrote recently about the highly acclaimed production of War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, I mentioned that my less than enthusiastic response was perhaps tied to my inability to tap  into my inner 12-year-old self, who—had he accompanied me—would surely have led to my being swept away by the grand spectacle of it all.

I feared we had lost touch altogether or that I had contracted a fatal case of curmudgeonness. But I am happy to report that my inner child and I had a happy reunion last weekend at productions of Peter and the Starcatcher and Wonderland. Both shows succeeded in reminding me of the magical power of storytelling that had captivated me as a youngster.

Let’s start with Peter and the Starcatcher, a delightful romp of a show. I haven’t read the book of (nearly) the same title by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, so I can’t speak to how well Peter and the Starcatcher sticks to its source material. But anyone who grew up with the story of Peter Pan—as a book, the Mary Martin musical, or the Disney animated version—would certainly recognize the show as a prequel, addressing the origin of the Boy-Who-Would-Not-Grow-Up, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell and even the clock-eating Crocodile.

The play, adapted by Rick Elice (co-writer of Jersey Boys and The Addams Family) and directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, represents theatrical imagination and creativity at their very best. A fine cast, a handful of simple props, and a shipload of whimsy and silliness—including a chorus line of singing and dancing mermaids, conversations in Dodo language, and more puns than should ever be allowed to be expressed in a single evening—combine in such a glorious way as to please anyone’s inner or outer child.

Of the acting company, I would like to single out Christian Borle for high praise for his performance as the wicked and wickedly funny pirate captain, Black Stache, the precursor to Captain Hook. For the role, he became the embodiment of a young and totally wigged-out Groucho Marx, with maybe a dollop of Cyril Richard, who starred as Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. Every moment Borle was onstage was sheer delight, and how nice to see him having what seemed to be a ton of fun after his recent excellent performance in the decidedly un-fun role of the AIDS-infected Prior Walter in the revival of Angels In America.

Alas, Peter and the Starcatcher has ended its run at the New York Theatre Workshop, but surely it will return there or to another venue.  Clap your hands if you believe!. 

Janet Dacal (center) and the cast of Wonderland

From Neverland, we move on to Wonderland, a full-scale tuneful Broadway musical, now on view at the Marquis Theatre.

Wonderland had me even before the curtain rose, with its use of projected images of iconic drawings by John Tenniel from the original Alice in Wonderland book that serves as the musical’s inspiration. But it wasn’t just the drawings that put the smile on my face; it was the accompanying projections of quotes from the book that meandered snake-like across the curtain. The twisting lines were reminiscent of "The Mouse’s Tale," a short segment in an early chapter of Alice in Wonderland, in which the words are typeset so as to follow the curves of a mouse’s tail (pun intended by Lewis Carroll). Someone knows their “Alice,” I thought, as I happily awaited the unfolding of the musical.

Wonderland is hardly the perfect show, but it has enough going for it to make the visit worthwhile, especially if you happen to be an admirer of Lewis Carroll’s off-kilter nuttiness. The well-known characters are all there and cleverly portrayed, with uniformly strong performances. Noteworthy are Janet Dacal as Alice, Kate Shindle as the Mad Hatter, Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts, and E. Clayton Cornelious as the Caterpillar, but no one is miscast or is a weak link.  Director Gregory Boyd (who is also the book writer, along with Jack Murphy) and choreographer Marguerite Derricks keep things hopping.  

Frank Wildhorn, a generally underappreciated tunesmith, has come up with a batch of catchy, bouncy, and entertaining songs (lyrics by Mr. Murphy)—even if at times it feels as if you were in the audience at a Las Vegas revue (lots of amplification and wall-of-sound orchestrations). Terrific, Tony-worthy costumes by Susan Hilferty and video projections by Sven Ortel add tremendously both to the Las Vegas effect and to the production itself. 

I feel obliged to note that my take on Wonderland veers sharply from that of many of the professional critics, who have brushed it off as trite and inconsequential. For me, though, Wonderland shows a real strength in its ability to tap into the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the plot of which, if I may be so bold as to mention, is no less inane the one whipped up by Boyd and Murphy.  The old don himself even makes an appearance in a scene that is perhaps tangential but is also charming and heart-warming.

If you are not a fan of Alice in Wonderland, as I have been lo these many years, you should consider this to be a caveat. 

I think Wonderland is a worthy entrant to the Broadway scene.  Time and box office receipts will tell if it will become the next Wicked, another show based on a classic children's  book that failed to thrill the critics when it opened in 2003 and yet is still playing to capacity crowds.

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