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Theatre in Review: Alice by Heart (MCC Theater)

Colton Ryan, Wesley Taylor, Zachary Infante, Molly Gordon. Photo. Deen van Meer.

The fetishization of teen agony -- a major driver of contemporary musical theatre -- reaches its apex in Alice by Heart. Everyone involved has labored to present the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland, in a startling and strongly theatricalized manner, adding a strong sociohistorical context and dramatic framework for what is, after all, a wild and wandering tale. The production is a design and staging marvel; years from now, people will see the photos and imagine that it must have been a stunner. But the show holds its wounded characters and their shared heartbreak in such tender regard that you, the viewer, are left with nothing to do. Some musicals reach out and hold the audience in a warm embrace; Alice by Heart wraps its arms around itself, holding very, very tightly.

Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson's book plops us down inside a London Tube station during the Blitz, where a motley crew has assembled to seek shelter from the bombs. Among them is young Alice and her dear friend (and, perhaps, first love) Alfred, who is quietly expiring from tuberculosis. The station appears also to be an ad hoc medical facility, complete with doctor and Red Cross nurse, a notion that makes one wonder. Maybe such arrangements were made during the war, and maybe a patient with a highly contagious illness would be assigned to a "quarantine area," separated from dozens of others by only a thin curtain. Or maybe the authors just needed this setup for their musical. It's an early example of the vagueness that afflicts the show throughout.

It seems clear that Alfred isn't long for this world, a notion that Alice refuses to accept; she also resents being kept from him, physically, for fear of infection. In addition, she is on the edge of what used to be known as "becoming a woman." The nurse tells her to button her blouse. "It's just grown smaller, really," Alice replies. "Funny how that happens, when the boys start growing bigger," the nurse replies, knowingly. (It's the opening comment in a show that has more references to female pubescence than Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.) Seemingly abandoned in wartime -- why is she so alone? -- terrified by the impending loss of Alfred, and seemingly ambivalent about the changes taking place in her body, she falls down the rabbit hole of her favorite novel.

The book occasionally treats Carroll's tale with a playful wit, toying amusingly with the notion of Alice's awareness of taking refuge inside a beloved novel. "So, you've skipped our scene entirely," says one of an aggrieved murder of magpies. "A scene you cherished once," adds another, hoping to instill as much guilt as possible. Other sequences reach for a labored, entirely conventional vulgarity. The Duchess, rather obviously envisioned as a drag queen, informs Alice with resentment, "Wretched Pig, grew yourself such breasts and hips/my lovelies sagged, just watching them," adding, for good measure, "You broke my heart/You selfish tart/and now my day's just fart, fart, fart." In another grab for an easy laugh, a magpie snaps, "What the flock?" At moments like these, Alice by Heart seems to be a rather sinister form of children's theatre and not the adult entertainment its creators have promised.

Whatever the pleasures and/or irritations provided by these scenes, however, nobody involved seems to have grappled with the fact that Carroll's book is not a progressive tale but a series of linked episodes that leave the heroine essentially unchanged at the end. (So many have tried to adapt the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, to all forms of media, rarely with success.) Here, each scene is another delaying tactic, designed to keep Alice from facing the fact of Alfred's impending death. It is of no help whatsoever that the songs, by Sater and Duncan Sheik -- who gave us Spring Awakening, that pioneering effort in the annals of musicals about adolescent angst -- have a vaporous quality reminiscent of the prog-rock albums that people listened to in pot hazes back in my college days. On her first entrance, Alice sings, "There's a world I knew as me/Before before/My room, my pictures/A sky no fire burned/West of words." Say what? Then there's the precious duet "Afternoon," in which Alfred sings, "I knew you were a strange girl/Or I think you were/You mustered the wonder/From a room of hurt./We knew the world of summer/Like a sister, like a brother/And the melodies were sweeter left unheard." The notion that musical theatre songs should be specific to the characters and situation has been overruled here.

Not that one can often understand what is being sung. Dan Moses Schreier is one of the best sound designers working in New York, so I have to believe that other factors may be involved, including the orchestrations by Sheik and Simon Hale, vocal arrangements by Jason Hart, and a general disinclination among the company to clearly enunciate the lyrics. (It's possible that MCC's otherwise superb new main stage theatre may not be designed for shows featuring electronic instruments.) But, too often, the result is sonic mush, making Alice's journey seem even more distant.

Nelson's direction, aided by the inventive choreography of Rick and Jeff Kuperman, bristles with creativity: A towering stepladder is transformed into a swing for Alice; the dreaded Jabberwocky is conjured by extending the actor Andrew Kober's frame with rifles and crutches; the entire company comes together to form a caterpillar; Alice looks on in horror as her own shadow is decapitated, the loosened head floating away. The production design is one of the best of the season: Edward Pierce's appropriately hulking, desolate Tube station, with a clock hanging over the action, is lit with phantasmagoric invention by Bradley King, who has a fresh look for each new episode. Paloma Young's often surreal costumes feature long coats made of food can labels, magpie wings made of book pages, a panoramic pannier skirt for the Duchess, and, for the Queen of Hearts, a skirt covered in hearts that look like bloody Rorschach blots. Schreier's sound effects include bombs, sirens, and ticking clocks.

If Alice by Heart had a more compelling Alice, it might work better, but Molly Gordon adds problems of her own, beginning with a marked lack of vulnerability; Alice is supposed to be a tremulous young thing on the edge of life-altering heartbreak, but in Gordon's hands she comes off as the brisk, take-charge type. Her extremely uneven vocals don't help, either. The cast is loaded with familiar faces going about their business with total professionalism; the standout, by far, is Grace McLean, who, as the Queen of Hearts, lends her steel-plated lungs to one of the show's better numbers, "Isn't It a Trial?," threatening to tear the roof off MCC's new building in the process. The gifted Heath Saunders is a perfectly insinuating Caterpillar, offering Alice a toke on his hookah, and there are capable turns by, among others, Noah Galvin as the Duchess, Kober as a befuddled King of Hearts, Catherine Ricafort in several roles, and Wesley Taylor as the Mad Hatter. Colton Ryan gives Alfred some charm with a distinct undertone of regret.

But it's emblematic of the entire enterprise that we are told little or nothing about Alice and Alfred's previous circumstances or their relationship; they are simply icons of youthful suffering posed against an ever-changing background. (There is the suggestion that she is an orphan, but it isn't followed up on; maybe he is one, too.) That they are young and either fearful of maturity (her) or marked for extinction (him) is, apparently, meant to be enough to compel our tears. They make a pretty pair, and they are surrounded by some fabulous window dressing, but this rabbit hole leads to a dramatic dead end. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2019)

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