Last night Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd’s musical version of Alice in Wonderland arrived on Broadway. Now I am indeed quite a Carrollian, but a fairly selective one. That is, I don’t go to stage versions or buy book adaptations that do not seem likely to fit my tastes. And so I’d held off going to this version based on the videos I’d seen which left me completely cold. Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times only reinforced that feeling. He writes:
The model here appears to be the Broadway behemoth “Wicked,” which recast L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a moral-dispensing tale of exceptionally gifted young women (hitherto known as witches) finding common ground in girl power. Unfortunately “Wonderland” reminded me even more strongly of another latter-day iteration of the Baum story, the bloated 1978 movie version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.”
You’ll recall — or maybe you won’t — that in the film the teenage Dorothy of the stage version became a grown-up, put-upon New York schoolteacher played by a saucer-eyed Diana Ross. The adventurer in “Wonderland” is also a harassed New York schoolteacher, Alice (the capable Janet Dacal), who aspires to write children’s books. Recently separated from her unemployed husband, she has moved to the “kingdom of Queens” with her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar, a good actress and an almost preternaturally skilled singer).
The problem for me is that Baum and Carroll’s stories are so different. The first has a driving quest plot — Dorothy wants to get home, but Alice hasn’t a similar wish in her original book — the only vague plot thread is her desire to get to the beautiful garden. The heart of Alice’s story is the wit, the language play, and the episodic encounters with odd creatures. I have no problem with someone figuring out how to strengthen the plotline as long as they maintain the humour and wit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. (Nor was it, for that matter, in last year’s Tim Burton effort.) And so Alice as Dorothy-in-the-Wiz just doesn’t work for me. (And by the way, Whoopie Goldberg already did an urban Alice for kids years ago.)
One film that does, I feel, give a sense of what Carroll was all about is Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild which is currently and frustratingly not available on DVD. It does seem to be on youtube in bits so here is the first part so you can get a taste: