KPBS AIRDATE: June 30, 1993
All right, class. It’s time for a review. What are the four branches of arithmetic? Good, you remembered: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision. Well, that’s what the Mock Turtle says in “Alice in Wonderland,” anyway.
No matter what form you hear them in — movies or cartoons, stage plays or songs — Lewis Carroll’s thoughts and words are brilliant, and his creations, though a century and a quarter old, are timelessly fantastical and fantastically timeless.
Personally, I always got a kick out of the colors in the Disney version, and my favorite musical rendition is The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” which had, for me, the requisite psychedelic surrealism.
But now, in National City, at the Lamb’s Players Theatre, we have “Alice in Concert,” a small-cast concert musical that draws from both “Alice in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.” The words are all there, and a lot of the wonderful, wacko characters. But it doesn’t stack up to the original in any way.
Part of the problem is the play itself. Elizabeth Swados wrote the piece in 1980, and Meryl Streep was her first Alice. Even so, the play didn’t last long or go far. The music is extremely varied — every genre in the book, to be precise — but not very memorable. And the story-line would probably be a lot easier to follow and appreciate if you have a strong memory of the source material.
The Lamb’s Players love to breathe new life into small theater pieces that barely survived their births. Last summer, they tried to resurrect “The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall.” And though they brought a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to the piece, it still wheezed and sputtered, crumpling under its own light weight.
They’ve brought the same spunk to “Alice,” and it works better because there’s more substance to begin with. But Deborah Gilmour Smith’s direction ranges from reverential cum religious to amateurish, to creative and inventive. That about matches the musical range, from jazz to blues to country, pop, calypso, waltz, you name it. Some works, some doesn’t.
But what works like crazy is the ensemble. Drawn mostly from the Lamb’s stable (no pun intended), the cast is highly talented, and the singing is excellent. Kudos to Mary Kidd for musical direction, and to the onstage band for super backup and cute contributions to the dramatic action.
Sarah Zimmerman is a magnificent Alice. I don’t know what Meryl Streep was like, but this 17 year-old brings all the delightful ingenuousness and moxie the character demands. And her voice is as magical as her adventures. The rest of the cast of eleven is dynamite, with standout acting and vocal versatility from Jeanne Reith, Nathan Peirson, Mark Jobson, Damon Bryant and Leigh Scarritt. When Veronica Murphy gets into elaborate head-pieces, her costumes are a hoot.
This isn’t child’s play, you should know. But the kids might enjoy it. I’ve always found the humor too sophisticated for children, but childlike innocence wouldn’t hurt. Overall, this production is light, tasty summer fare; it’s not too filling, but it’s sweet, and it goes down easily.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.