Not to be confused with the Blur frontman, Damon Alban’s musical that kicked off Manchester International Festival two years ago, Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy’s Wonderland is a new musical adaptation of two of Lewis Carroll’s classics – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.
Having already enjoyed a stint on Broadway the show is on its UK and European premiere tour with an impressive cast that includes West End leading lady Kerry Ellis, musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts and former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters.
On paper Wonderland should be a sure-fire hit – it’s based on one of the most popular children’s stories of our time, the music is by a multi-award winning composer and you have Ellis, the woman who made Wicked’s Elphaba a hit in the UK at the helm.
Unfortunately it does not live up those expectations.
Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy have created a book for stage that sees Alice no longer a little girl but a 40 year old single Mum disillusioned with the cards life dealt her and wanting to escape the ‘real world’. Cue a visit to their high-rise block of flats from the White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) who takes her, her teenage daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) and geeky love-struck neighbour Jack (Stephen Webb) down the lift shaft – a modern day rabbit hole – into the frantic world of Wonderland.
Whilst Grace Smart’s costumes perfectly evoke the essence of Carroll’s creation with a melee of colours and craziness about them, Andrew Riley’s set however is sparse and changes very little throughout the performance with just additional props wheeled on, such as the Looking Glass and Mad Hatters’ Tea party table. I wanted a magical world to unfold beneath my eyes and be dazzled at the grandeur but it all felt a little flat.
There was magic however when it came to the performances. Kerry Ellis is just incredible to watch and her vocals exquisite, so too was Natalie McQueen as the Mad Hatter giving her just the right amount of zaniness and proving a perfect match for Ellis in their powerhouse duet This Is Who I Am. Wendi Peters also went down a treat with audiences for her portrayal of the Queen of Hearts and her number Off With Your Head left you wishing she had more time on stage to fully develop her character.
Wonderland’s main flaw is that it makes you feel like you are watching a pantomime – there’s lots of fluff and not enough jeopardy to take the show seriously as a musical, which in reality is competing against the likes of other new creations such as Hamilton and Groundhog Day. At times I half expected the characters to address the audience and get them involved in the action. The production would be the perfect vehicle for Christmas time with its sickly sweet message of ‘not being afraid to be who you are inside’ being drummed down your throat at every stage but for now it needs more work on making the songs memorable and the story slick enough to turn it into a real contender.
Runs at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Sunday 30th April
*Britain’s Got Talent’s Rachael Wooding will guest star as Alice for the Sunday matinée performance in Manchester.