REVIEW: ‘Wonderland’ lures real audiences down a musical rabbit hole at the Aurora Fox

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AURORA | March 13, 2020 was supposed to be the opening night of the play “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. Instead, the theater had to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s doors stayed shut for many months to come.

More than a year later, the theater closed out its 36th season with a different happy ending — the retelling of a different fantasy. Almost as fantastic for the audience was simply sitting inside a theater without a mask. The audience was sent back to a world of normalcy after a chaotic 18 months of pandemic life.

Onstage, the opposite journey happened, as “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure” plunged its characters into a land of the absurd with its musical interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s iconic wonderland stories.

In an email, Wonderland director and Fox’s executive producer Helen R. Murray said that the musical is the only show that was part of the original season before COVID-19 arrived.

“We moved forward with an entirely re-imagined season of small cast shows and virtual experiences, but we held onto Wonderland, almost as an aspiration…or a promise to ourselves and to our community that we would get through this, and that theater would return to our regional stages,” she said.

The promise is now fulfilled.

First published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an immediate sensation with both children and adults and has never been out of print. A sequel, Through the Looking Glass, followed six years later. The stories have remained in the pop culture eye ever since, most famously in Disney’s 1951 animated film. Characters such as the white rabbit, the bloodthirsty Red Queen, the grinning Cheshire Cat and the fearsome Jabberwocky are part of the cultural lexicon even for those who never sat down with the original book.

Retelling a beloved classic is a dangerous game, as it can either make an old story seem new again or alienate fans with hackneyed attempts at putting a spin on the original. Wonderland avoids the latter by hewing close to the original storyline while changing the way it gets told instead of trying to do both at once.

The musical presents all of Carroll’s familiar characters to the audience with a cast of just six, who act, sing and play guitar through the 16-song performance. There aren’t a lot of surprises if you’re familiar with the original, but seeing Carroll’s words take shape onstage with an electric guitar is enjoyable to watch.

The musical starts with plucky youngster Alice (Darrow Klein) bemoaning how bored she is stuck inside her house — a relatable predicament these days.

Her moping is soon interrupted by the White Rabbit, who tells us in song that he is, well, you know, “late for a very important date.” In her attempt to follow him, Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole and begins her adventure, meeting Wonderland’s colorful cast of characters along the way.

She gets into the iconic argument with a caterpillar, who is bellicose after being interrupted while seeking inner peace. She attends a tea party with the Mad March Hare and the Mad Hatter, who give her dubious advice. She speaks with the Cheshire Cat, who gives her the best explanation of Wonderland: “we’re all mad here.” And finally, she goes toe-to-toe with the Red Queen herself.

The Red Queen, played by Anna High, is far and away the trump card in the show. Mentioned in passing by a raft of other characters before showing up herself in the musical’s last several songs, High brings to life the perfect over-the-top villain that audiences love to hate. In an outfit that you could also expect to see on a drag queen and wielding a lawn flamingo as a croquet mallet, she creates a character meant to dominate the stage. The queen goes back and forth with Alice before making her famous demand, the removal of Alice’s head.

That’s when Alice finally has to find her strength. After traveling through a strange world and being dismissed by a host of curious characters, she chooses to believe in herself and ultimately makes her way back home.

Wonderland is a coming of age tale, and a quite relatable one at that despite all the fantastic elements. After yearning for a bigger world, Alice finds herself in a strange place where she doesn’t understand the rules and feels small and over her head.

Regardless of age, facing up to fears and finding inner strength to go on is a world that seems upside-down is a story that everyone relates to, and gets experienced again and again through the different phases of life. As the queen says, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Sometimes believing in yourself is the most powerful thing you can do, even when it feels impossible.

Carroll didn’t explain how any of the things in his books happened to Alice, he simply drew his readers into his world. The musical takes a similar approach. It has very few high-tech effects, instead opting to use the creativity of the stage and the audience’s suspension of disbelief to portray Wonderland’s many magical elements, such as Alice’s shrinking and growing and the Cheshire Cat’s disappearance.

Friday’s audience was happy to play along; there was plenty of laughter at the show’s gag lines, and enthusiastic applause tagging the musical numbers. The simple pleasure of being back in person seemed to heighten emotions, and probably served as a boost to the performers as well.

The music, a series of high-tempo rock and roll songs performed by an enthusiastic cast, is what ties the show together and provides an emotional backdrop for the character’s actions. Music can be a musical’s worst enemy — it takes longer to tell a story in verse, and the long run times of many musicals can strain the audience’s attention spans. Wonderland avoids this with a tight, no-intermission 90 minute run time.

Despite source material over 150 years old, Wonderland felt like it told a story for the now. Over the past year, many people were pushed into a world that seemed like a funhouse-mirror distortion of the life they were used to.

Wonderland “highlights how young people feel the world doesn’t make sense and is out of control,” Murray said. “I think that’s a feeling we can all relate to right now.”

If you go

“Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure”

Runs through July 3, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Purchase tickets online at aurorafoxartscenter.org or by calling
303-739-1970.

While seated, masks are not required for vaccinated patrons.

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