The goings-on beneath the white-rabbit hole at Lamb’s Players Theatre are as wildly whimsical as they are proudly nonsensical. In “Alice,” a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” incongruity is 90 percent of the fun. While the sharpness of Carroll’s satirical sword may be missing from Elizabeth Swados’ 1980 creation for the stage, the fantastical elements and ingenious characters he created are delightfully intact.
This “Alice” is a relatively obscure work, best remembered perhaps for an early-‘80s production that starred Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl Streep) as children’s literature’s most famous heroine. It’s a strictly ensemble piece with all its actors, save the person playing Alice, filling multiple roles. Its musical score is all over the place, from Calypso to doo-wop, from pop-rock to shades of country, from a capella to the kind of jaunty group sings reminiscent of “Godspell.” At Lamb’s, by the way, a five-piece band led by Ian Brandon handles these divergent idioms with aplomb.
Familiarity with Carroll’s books is helpful, but only an appreciation for the unpredictable and a resistance to the need for explanation are required. “Alice” is all about the denizens of Wonderland that Alice (Megan Carmitchel) encounters underground. The strength of the Lamb’s production, directed and choreographed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, is in those portrayals: Eileen Bowman as the Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty; Geno Carr as Bill the Lizard, the Mock Turtle and a sobbing baby; Brian Mackey as the Mad Hatter; William BJ Robinson as the Cheshire Cat; Angela Chatelain Avila as the White Rabbit.
Also in the sprightly cast are Nancy Snow Carr, Caitie Grady, Jacob Caltrider, Erika Osuna and Fernando Vega, all of them returnees to the Lamb’s stage.
The first act basically mirrors Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the second act the somewhat darker “Through the Looking Glass.” The set and projections by Michael McKeon are evocative of the storybooks, the costuming by Jemima Dutra more subtle than you might expect for an “Alice” production.
A definite highlight is Alice’s duel with the jabberwocky in Act Two, an impressive feat of onstage magic. Less dramatic but entertaining in its own right is the staging of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with the cup and saucer settings strapped to the backs of actors who hunch over to serve as tables.
To some degree, there’s an anything-goes approach to the festivities that jibes with the bizarro nature of Wonderland, yet it can be wearying, especially when certain sequences (the Mock Turtle/Gryphon bit for one) overstay their welcomes. It helps to remember that one mini-adventure will be followed by another, and another, until the windup when we learn, alas, that it was all a dream.
The “It was all a dream” explanation of childhood fantasies (see “The Wizard of Oz” too) is disappointing when you invest yourself in a completely other world. It’s gratifying, however, that in “Alice” our heroine in the puff-sleeved dress seems to cling to her imagination and its occupants even after she’s awakened by her mother.
Maybe Wonderland is a real place after all.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/10/20.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.