Stephen Webb as our hero Jack and Kerry Ellis as Alice
The New Alexandra Theatre
LET’S start by saying Wonderland provides a fun night out. All right, it won’t muscle its way on to any best musicals of all-time list, but that doesn’t stop it being entertaining.
The music might be pleasant without finding a show stopper, the storyline is paying not much more than lip service to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, yet it does have a strange appeal – easily enough to hold your interest.
And it has plenty to commend it. For a start, it is original, with original music, no hint of jukebox musical or mega movie stage transfer here, and it is fast paced, bubbly, colourful and always lively.
Admittedly it is a bit of a curate’s egg with some bits working much better than others but a first night standing ovation indicates what many of the audience thought.
Behind it all is a gentle morality tale which enters Lewis Carroll’s bizarre world where logic is turned on its head.
We have a delightful performance as Alice by West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis, displaying the fine voice that has graced many a CD - including a an interesting series with Queen's Brian May.
It’s Alice’s 40th birthday and she has had her car stolen, making her late for work, so she is sacked. She is still hung up over her ex-husband who dumped her five years ago and, she learns that morning, is about to remarry, dashing her unrealistic hopes of getting back together.
All in all Alice has probably had better days.
Teenage daughter Ellie, in a most convincing performance from young Naomi Marris, is playing second fiddle to a relationship long gone with her mother locked in the past.
Then there is neighbour Jack, desperately in love with Alice and desperately shy, and, let’s be honest, desperately ordinary and dull in a rather uninspiring performance from Stephen Webb – but more of that later.
Not exactly a fun trio, or they weren’t until along comes the White Rabbit, in the super safe hands of West End musical theatre star Dave Willets, in a white bowler with big white ears.
Stephen Webb as Jack, the new hero on the block, with his boy band
He takes our trio down to Wonderland, not by the traditional rabbit hole, but by the out of order lift in the tower block they inhabit.
There we meet a selection of the bizarre characters who inhabit Carroll’s world. There is Dominic Owen as the Cheshire Cat, who manages the neat trick of singing while walking on his hands, Kayi Ushe as the jazz singing Caterpillar with his long legged legs, Divine Cresswell as the sleepy dormouse – she also pops up as a set of caterpillar legs - and the Irish March Hare played by Ben Kerr.
Then there is Natalie McQueen as the Mad Hatter, who lives up to her name being mad as a . . . you get the idea.
She runs the hat factory except no one ever makes a hat because it is always tea time, which is a bonus for the Queen of Hearts, Coronation Street’s Wendi Peters, who has a penchant for jam tarts and a hobby of beheading people.
It hurts, we are told, but you don’t actually die. But once beheaded you can never leave and you can be beheaded as many time as the queen selects you.
Into the weird mix comes the looking glass, voiced by John Finnemore. Step through there and your life changes for ever which means Ellie becomes a real teenager, bit of strop here and there in a nice transformation, and dull Steven Webb as boring Jack becomes supercharged as a superhero and leader of a boy band. It’s a transformation which worked really well and the new look, confident Jack really can sing, although perhaps the song might have been trimmed a little.
Meanwhile, the new look Mad Hatter, entering to a blousy jazz number, becomes even madder, challenging the Queen as she turns Wonderland into Blunderland slowly destroying the cosy, illogical off the wall life of the inhabitants.
The only person who can save them is Alice but will she risk finding out who she really is, who she really wants to be?
At all comes down to being ourselves, being who we really want to be in a heart-warming finale.
Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar - with his extra legs!
The show has a hard-working ensemble who take on a wide variety of roles from caterpillar legs to knights, playing cards and whatever else Wonderland conjures up with some lively routines choreographed by Lucie Pankhurst.
Music and Lyrics by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy might not have produced a future standard, but it is varied, interesting, and has things to say to move the story on, and is helped by an excellent eight piece band under musical director Alex Parker.
The book, from Gregory Bond and Jack Murphy, adapted from the American to a UK version by Robert Hudsonalthough not entirely faithful to Carroll, manages to capture a feel of his mad world with an added modern twist.
Andrew Riley’s set, which seemed to run into a couple of minor difficulties – an occupational hazard for touring shows on their first night in a new theatre – is clever and colourful, changing scenes quickly helping director Lotte Wakeham keep up a good pace.
As a musical it is perhaps never going to set the world alight, but it is great fun, entertaining and strangely appealing to watch – the bottom line is I enjoyed it, and you can’t ask for much more from any show. To 11-02-17
And from the other side of the glass
WHILE this show will never reach the heights of the top musicals, it is an enjoyable experience to meet up with some of the loveable characters from your childhood in a very different setting and an adult theme.
Loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s famous tales of Alice, it lacks any real drama but that is generally compensated for by Frank Wildhorn’s excellent music, the colourful scenes and costumes.
On opening night of this UK tour a large section of the audience showed their appreciation of the hard-working cast with a standing ovation, and while there were a few tame spots in the action, the rousing finale was memorable.
The story opens with downtrodden single mum, Alice, upset after finding her car has been stolen, then suffering a double whammy when she is sacked through arriving late for work.
Add to that the news that her former husband is to re-marry, and it’s easy to see why the sudden appearance of a big white rabbit offers a bit of hope as, together with daughter Ellie and nervous neighbour Jack, they head off to Wonderland via a lift, rather than a rabbit hole, and dart through a huge looking glass which has a voice of its own.
There they meet up with characters like the Mad Hatter, Caterpillar, Dormouse, March Hare and the Queen of Hearts, though not exactly as you might remember them. The Mad Hatter, for example, is played by the very attractive Natalie McQueen who acts and sings superbly while plotting against the jam tart loving, head-choppng enthusiast Queen of Hearts, amusingly played by Wendi Peters, famous for her role as Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street
There are outstanding performances, too, from Kerry Ellis, a former lead in Wicked, as Alice, Naomi Morris (Ellie) and Stephen Webb (Jack), while Coventry’s Dave Willetts is the loveable ex judge White Rabbit with huge ears sprouting from a white bowler hat.
There’s a happy ever after ending as Alice, Ellie and Jack decide to return home with a new outlook on life.
Directed by Lotte Wakeham with Alex Parker’s musical direction, Wonderland continues to charm until 11.02.17