On seeing ‘Wonderland’: It’s much pleasanter at home

Camping out in 'Wonderland.' (Michal Daniel)
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Halfway through the first act of Wonderland, a new Broadway retelling of Alice’s adventures through the looking glass, you get a glimpse of what this show might have been.

Jack the White Knight, a dashing and chivalrous gentleman, introduces himself to Alice—here, a modern-day mom from Queens who finds herself trapped in the famous children’s story she’s been reading to her daughter. This being a musical, Jack introduces himself in song, with a crew of four hunky back-up knights who look ready for a game of polo. “One Knight” is a simple and otherwise forgettable song about being do-gooders, but the knights perform it in a most unforgettable way, with all the harmonies and synchronized dance moves of a boy band, and it’s the first sustained joke of the show. It’s winking and self-aware, and opens the possibility that there might be some way to make yet another "reinvention" of Alice stand out, and to inject what starts to look like a painfully earnest score with some genuine humor.

But no.

Wonderland is a snooze, too childish for adults and too dull for kids. The very slight twist on the story—the modern narrative frame—isn’t enough to make it feel new. And Frank Wildhorn’s music ranges from derivative to bombastic, but remains consistently banal and generic.

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This could have been a comedy; 'NSync routines aside, the book by Gregory Boyd (also the director) and Jack Murphy (also the lyricist) has some good lines, including a crowd-pleasing if predictable “tea party” gag. But the one-dimensional lyrics, often so over-amplified as to be incomprehensible, don’t match the far cleverer book.

It could have been dark and menacing. After all, Wonderland is a pretty scary place. But any sense of evil is quickly banished (even the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter, here played by a woman, never seem truly sinister), and with all the irony and sarcasm drained to make room for treacle.

It could, or perhaps should, have a sense of magic about it, but the small-scale sets and small-scale production numbers are dwarfed by the Marquis Theatre’s mammoth stage; cheap projections only worsen the effect, turning this Wonderland into a poor man’s Lidsville.

There’s even hope of turning this into a sort of meta-story, as this show’s contemporary Alice—who fancies herself a children’s book writer—navigates a place she’s read about already in children’s books, and finds herself face-to-face with the story’s author (in a truly awful duet). Unfortunately, even this conceit is quickly forgotten and brushed aside.

The bright spots are few and far between. E. Clayton Cornelious brings some terrific attitude to his role as the Caterpillar. And Darren Ritchie is truly wonderful as Jack the White Knight. He and his knights have a brief reprise toward the end of the deeply dull second act. But by then, even this tiny bit of inventiveness is too little, and comes too late.

Wonderland is playing at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Tickets are $56.75-139.75. Call 212-307-4100.