Review of MCC Theater's world premiere musical Alice By Heart

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    February 27, 2019
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    The latest entry in the multitude of adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s seminal novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the musical Alice By Heart, is the inaugural offering at the newly opened MCC Theater’s Newman Mills Theater. The creative team behind this effort has some pretty serious chops. The book was co-written by Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and Jessie Nelson (Waitress) who also directs, and the music was written by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). So, I was all set to enjoy myself when I took my seat in the theater.

    Alice By Heart is set in London during the Blitz of World War II. The Playbill tells us it is set in an Underground station – a makeshift shelter during the bombing. “And, one golden afternoon in Wonderland.” The plot is not overly complicated. It’s a shelter during the bombing, mainly for stray children found without parents. Young Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon) is there with her only possession, a copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Her friend Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan) is brought in having been found buried beneath some rubble and he is put in quarantine because he is very sick. Close to death in fact. Alice is convinced that she can keep Alfred alive by reading to him from her book as she used to do but is thwarted by the Red Cross Nurse (Grace McLean), who eventually tears up the book.

    However, Alice knows the book by heart and manages to sneak in and recite it to Alfred and they fall into Wonderland. Fittingly, Alfred, whose time on earth is limited, turns into the White Rabbit who is obsessed with time and being late in the novel and forever consulting his watch. The unsympathetic Red Cross Nurse becomes the evil Queen of Hearts and The Magpie in one of the best performances of the production by Grace McLean. Her small bit as The Magpie was a comedy primer in animal work and her song “The Trial” garnered the biggest applause of the evening, not just for her spectacular voice, but for her complete vitriolic domination of the stage.

    While there’s much to like about Alice By Heart, I don’t think it’s quite there yet. There are two big issues for me. Whenever you’re doing an adaptation of any work, the big question is why? What is it you’re trying to bring to the party and say? Especially by setting it where you do and arranging it like you do? For me, that was murky here. There was a lot of musing about time and the lack of it. Growing up and not growing up, but I didn’t get any arc in the character of Alice herself. It was all around her, but it didn’t come from her.

    Which leads to the second issue, which I suspect would get cleared up in dealing with the first. And that is the relationship between Alice and Alfred. Are they children? Or are they teenagers who fall in love? Their song and physicality at the end of the show suggest that they’re “in” love. Which kind of feels wrong and funny, as if I had missed something. If, however, that was the intent, it can’t come out of nowhere.

    There’s a lot of creativity here and the basic concepts and structures work well. The choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman is excellent and works beautifully in tandem with the costumes by Paloma Young, especially in the Caterpillar song “Chillin’ the Regrets” and the Mock Turtles song “Your Shell of Grief.” And Jessie Nelson’s deft direction makes the transitions from bomb shelter to Wonderland and back seamless and clear with a big assist from clever lighting by designer Bradley King. The ensemble cast is splendid, and it looks like they’re having a lot of fun. But for God’s sake – let’s drop the now you hear me, now you don’t, English accents.

    (Photo by Deen van Meer)

    "Fantasy in the face of faith-testing adversity is the subject of the new musical Alice By Heart, the inaugural production of the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in Hell’s Kitchen. So perhaps it’s appropriate that audiences for this thickly layered riff on Lewis Carroll’s much-plundered Wonderland novel, which opened on Tuesday night, should find their own will to make believe so relentlessly challenged."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "MCC is the latest theater to bring Carroll’s picaresque fantasy to the stage, where it opened Tuesday at the company’s new Off Broadway space Newman Mills Theater. This version has the distinct advantage of being updated from the 19th-century to World War II London during the Blitz, and many of the liberties taken by book writers Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson are captivating."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Since it became free for the taking, Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy has inspired innumerable adaptations and variations, including a 1976 pornographic movie. Some of them have admittedly been sublime, but more often than not they're laborious. The latter is unfortunately true of the new musical reuniting the Spring Awakening team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/book writer Steven Sater. Featuring a book co-written by Sater and Jessie Nelson (Waitress), Alice by Heartdemonstrates that it might be time to give Alice and those fantastical characters surrounding her a well-deserved rest."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "Creatives from every discipline have tried to make Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale Alice in Wonderland their own, only to find themselves falling down an artistic rabbit hole. The new interpretation now inaugurating a spiffy new home for Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, Alice By Heart, also joins the ranks of adaptations that have gotten tangled up in the details of nonsense, despite some dreamy melodies (from Spring Awakening Tony winners Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), clever staging and a welcome emotional arc for the title character."
    Frank Rizzo for Variety