There were moments during the second act when I closed my eyes, and I thought, “Maybe when I open my eyes, this show will have disappeared. I will be somewhere soothing and wonderful, like in a field of flowers, or in Italy, or at the matinee of Arcadia.”
This is more or less the only wondrous sentiment I felt during Wonderland, a show that is supposed to be super duper wondrous. Also worth noting, re: magical thinking: Be careful when you declare something the worst show you’ve ever seen. Broadway may interpret those words as a kind of challenge, and its answer to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark may or may not have been this show.
Wonderland is the story of Alice in Wonderland. Except that it’s not. It’s modernized and set in Queens and Alice (Janet Dacal) is a pretty grownup mom who stumbles not into the rabbit hole but into the service elevator in her building, which takes her to Wonderland. Imagine Lewis Caroll’s world—all his wonderful tricks of logic and language—fanfictionized, Oprah-ified, and presented rather lukewarm on a platter with some dim message about how it’s important to know yourself.
And I wish I could, like everyone else, just bash the bad Wildhorn songs (bland to the point of nonexistence) or the forced sentiment (there’s a gratingly precocious child) or the dreadful second act (endless and disorganized, and includes a cameo appearance by Lewis Caroll himself in a creepy wig). Because crummy as it is, it can’t even be written off as harmless, well-meaning fun for kids or tourists.
By intermission, I was pretty annoyed. Not just by the producers, who thought that Broadway really needed this show. But by the show’s weird messages about race, gender, self-empowerment, and family dynamics. Hilarious because this show tries so hard not to offend anyone, to make its message as universally and blandly acceptable as possible.
Like why, to use just one particularly egregious example, is the Cheshire Cat re-imagined as a Latino party boy named El Gato whose friends all dance on a blinged-out lowrider? Offensive stereotypes much? And you know, I get that we all live in happy postmodern times where stereotypes—and people’s ideas about stereotypes—are more nuanced than ever. But in a kids musical written entirely by white people where the presence of race in characters like El Gato appears to serve no purpose except to colorfully accessorize the boring leading character, I call major bullshit.
Same goes for the basically sexist premise of the show’s central theme—that a hard working career gal needs to find her inner child, and try really hard to not emasculate her unemployed husband. And oh, if that doesn’t have your brain bleeding yet, try this one on for size: The Mad Hatter is now a woman in men’s clothing, and she symbolizes—deep breath—all of Alice’s hardened, ambitious (that is to say, masculine) traits. In fact, all the women in the show who wield any real power are written off as harpies or gleeful murderesses, or worse—like Alice herself—people who’ve somehow lost touch with their truer, softer inner selves.
And what happens in the end? Oh yeah. The traditional nuclear family—which was in shambles at the beginning of the show—is restored. Because that’s the key to all happiness, right?
Sure, a Wildhorn musical isn’t the best place to look for progressive ideas, but why do I have to deal with this ignorant nonsense in a musical that’s too dumb to even know that it’s totally offending me?
Thank God for the show’s one redeeming moment: Alice’s would-be prince charming, the White Knight (Darren Ritchie, looking like a very warp-universe Norbert Leo Butz), apparently tours Wonderland as the leader of a boyband. Their moves are so on-the-nose, their mugging so well-timed, that the joke actually lands. It’s the only one in the show that draws more than a titter from the underwhelmed audience. And more, it actually provided something useful—a momentary escape from the charmless show happening around it.
Photo: Paul Kolnik