Some musicals hook us with a catchy soundtrack or dazzle us with big stage effects. Alice By Heart takes a different approach. This is a show built on deep emotions, beautiful music, impressive staging, and graceful choreography.
On the surface, this is a story about a bunch of kids trying to escape the harsh realities of World War II by escaping to Wonderland. As we go down the rabbit hole, it becomes clear this is a story about running out of time, trying not to grow up, and first loss.
A Brief Synopsis
As the musical opens we learn that Alice and company are living in a London tube station during the Blitz of World War II in London. Alfred, her good friend, is sick with Tuberculosis and is about to be quarantined and left to die. Alice insists that she read him Alice in Wonderland one last time before he goes. Eventually she loses the book and tells the story by heart.
The book by Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson weaves three clear themes thought the story, running out of time, trying not to grow up and first loss.
Running out of time is the theme mentioned most often throughout the musical, certainly at the beginning. I thought this was brilliantly handled by having Alfred, the sick character, play the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit is constantly worried about being late or the Queen will have his head. In Alice By Heart, Alfred is worried that he will run out of time due to his illness.
Trying not to grow up is secondary to the first theme but important on it's own. During the song Manage Your Flaming, the Duchess criticizes Alice for growing up. Alice is growing up, and as a result the Duchess is growing old. Another mention was a line from the original text "I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then." This theme is reprised during the final moments of the show in Down The Hole (reprise). The final line mentions "down the hole and there you are," as though it's the new version of you.
First loss is the heaviest theme in Alice By Heart. Alice is losing her friend Alfred and desperately wants to keep him. There are clear parallels between various songs and the stages of grief. West of Words is denial, Still is bargaining (for more time), I've Shrunk Enough is anger, Winter Blooms is depression, and finally Down the Hole (reprise) is acceptance.
Music, Choreography, and Set
It's clear that no detail was too small when producing this show. As a result of this the music, choreography, and set are so intertwined that it's hard to discuss them separately.
The scenic designer, Edward Pierce, as clearly thoughtful in his objective of building Wonderland on top of a World War II London tube station. Everything fits perfectly in both. Some of the bigger examples are like the way out sign and the clock. The tables, beds, and even boxes all have a feel to them that they could be for a tea party or for giving out rations.
Costume designer Paloma Young also had the same attention to detail. Garments like the gloves on the caterpillar or the queens dress connect the worlds of London and Wonderland.
The choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman continue this trend. I first realized how special this choreography was during Chillin' the Regrets when I really believed that caterpillar had 10 arms and legs. This was done through the marriage of the choreography costume design. Each cast member wore the same finger gloves to appear as though they were one unit.
We saw this repeatedly throughout the show when items like guns, hats, and gas masks were brought into the forefront to portray body parts on a Wonderlandian character.
The music by Duncan Sheik was beautiful drove home the themes set out by Steven Sater. I wouldn't say any of the songs were catchy, but I've been listening to Afternoon repeatedly since seeing this live.
The music is what connected the themes above with the choreography and stage. It might be the strongest bond in the marriage of London and Wonderland. I look forward to the cast recording.
With the exception of Molly Gordon's Alice, every actor plays at least two roles. They were all fantastic but there are a few I want to call out.
First, Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan as Alice and Alfred have wonderful chemistry together. The way they looked at each other conveyed a deep tenderness and this made Alfred's illness so much harder to watch.
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe did a brilliant job bridging the characters of Tabatha and the Cheshire Cat. Both characters serve advice to Alice, however they each have their own body language that she pulled off well.
Wesley Taylor and Zachary Infante as the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse were exceptionally entertaining during the Tea Party scene. They played off of each other to keep the confusion high as they needed to change places and get refills.
Finally Noah Galvin as the Duchess and Heath Saunders as the Caterpillar brought to life colorful characters that were enjoying to watch.
I have a hunch this show will magically extend again and transfer to broadway. I'd be surprised if this lives a long life on Broadway though. It's a heavy show that leaves the viewer with a lot to process. Those types of shows don't last forever.
Book: 7/10 - The themes were gorgeous, but the show was hard to follow at times. It required more than the average familiarity with the original novel.
Choreography: 8/10 - The choreography is brilliant in that it keeps us engaged with the world we're viewing.
Music: 7/10 - I look forward to listening to the cast recording, however I'm not sure how well it'll hold up without the rest of the show in front of you.
Cast: 8/10 - Every member of the cast has wonderful chemistry with everyone they interact with. They brought the show to life.
Overall: 7/10 - I really enjoyed Alice By Heart. This is a very deep show which leaves a lot to think about, but I don't think will have mass market appeal. I would only send big theater fans to go see it.
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