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A CurtainUp Review
Alice By Heart

"At least that story's done."—Clarissa
"No, never done."—Alice —
A scene from Alice by Heart. (Photo: Deen van Meer)
It's not every day you get to inaugurate a stunning new theater. So it's no surprise that MCC has chosen to go big for its first production in the Newman Mills Theater—the main stage at the new Robert w. Wilson MCC Theater—with the world premiere of a new musical from Spring Awakening co-creators Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.

The result, directed and co-written by Jessie Nelson, is Alice by Heart, an experimental retelling of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that frames Lewis Caroll's classic against the backdrop of the Blitz of London during World War II. Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon) is one of a group of teenagers forced to take refuge in the tunnels of the Underground, where her friend Alfred (Colton Ryan) becomes sick. Faced with the darkness of her own world, Alice escapes into Wonderland, searching a beloved fantasy for the strength to get by in reality.

Comparisons to Sater and Sheik's previous work are unavoidable, not only because of Spring Awakening's huge influence on contemporary musical theater but also due to clear overlaps in the subject matter and execution. Once again, a source text from the late nineteenth century serves as a platform to explore coming of age, love, and loss. As before, the cast is mostly made up of young contemporaries, with a pair of adults representing life's harsh realities to come. Even the choreography, by Rick and Jeff Kuperman, seems to draw inspiration from Bill T. Jones's work on the earlier musical.

But while Spring Awakening offers a parable with sharp plotting, deep characters, and well-defined stakes, Alice by Heart is a vaguer fantasia. It is more internally focused and hazily fades in and out of its reality in a way that might alienate viewers much like non-linear storytelling can. Alice's Adventures is already somewhat scattered in its episodic construction, and retelling the story with an even looser structure comes with narrative disadvantages.

The musical relies heavily on the worldbuilding already done by Carrol's book, and the roles within Wonderland are already largely realized. But the connections between the fantasy world and Alice's own are underdeveloped. We know little of Alice and Alfred's lives before the War, and we lack context for their relationship. This makes it difficult to emotionally invest in their characters, despite strong performances and heartfelt vocals from Gordon and Ryan. Even less is revealed about the other characters in the Underground shelter, diluting their connections to Alice as they take on the guises of Wonderland's occupants.

Still, this is an ensemble piece, as reflected by the show's strength in the music and staging. Sheik's compositions alone can justify having a large cast. He expertly combines the many voices through impressive harmonies and powerful dynamic changes, as in the opener "West of Words" and mid-show number "Another Room in Your Head." While this isn't a show filled with earworms, the music and orchestrations, in addition to Sater's evocative lyrics, prove consistently enjoyable. Although the inconsistent accents are occasionally distracting, the singing is uniformly strong, and the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier ensures it comes through with clarity.

Nelson's staging and the choreography by the Kuperman brothers also make deft use of the ensemble, resulting in striking stage pictures and movement. One memorable example is the group choreography as the Caterpillar, carefully planned and delicately executed. This number also showcases a standout of Paloma Young's clever costume designs for the inhabitants of Wonderland.

In general, the production is beautiful to look at, especially the finely detailed scenic design by Edward Pierce, brought to life with the help of Bradley King's immersive lighting design. Pierce's faithfulness to the Tube's distinctive architecture and inclusion of period posters prove highly transporting.

The one slightly perplexing set element is a large clock frozen at 9:11, perhaps in a gesture towards the closest New York has come to a Blitz of its own. This evocation, if intentional, is a bit opaque here. A more fruitful connection, which Nelson has acknowledged, can be made between the separation of these teenagers from their families and the current horrors of families being separated at the US/Mexico border. However, without more attention devoted to the emotional lives of the characters outside of Wonderland, this remains more of a superficial correspondence than a core element of the work.

Alice By Heart has rough spots on the narrative front, but with its strong score and production design, it nonetheless helps to mark a promising start for MCC's work at the Wilson Space. (The Light simultaneously inaugurates the smaller Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater.) The production highlights the facility's technical capabilities, its fine acoustics, and its superb sightlines throughout the house.

More importantly, though, the thoughtfully realized production reaffirms MCC's commitment to showcasing ambitious new work. In their new digs, it's clear that the bar for that ambition is now higher than ever.

Song List

west Of Words /Alice & Alfred
Down the Hole/All
Still /White Rabbit & Alice
Chillin' The Regrets/Caterpillars, Alice, & All
The Key Is/Alice & All
So/Magpie, Eaglet, Duck, Canary, Dodo, & Pigeon
Those Long Eyes/Cheshire Cat, Alice, & White Rabbit
Manage Your Flamingo/Duchess, Queen Of Diamonds, King Of Hearts, White Rabbit, Knaves, & All
To Death Of Alice-ness/Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse,Alice
Brillig Braelig/Dr. Butridge, Alice, & All
Some Things Fall Away/Cheshire Cat
Your Shell Of Grief/Mock Turtles & Alice Another Room In Your Head /alfred, Alice, & All
Isn't It A Trial?/!ueen Of Hearts, Knave Of Hearts, & All
Do You Think We Think You're Alice?/ All
I've Shrunk Enough/All
Afternoon /Alice & Alfred
Winter Blooms /Alice, Tabatha, & All

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Alice By Heart
Book by Steven Sater with Jessie Nelson
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Steven Sater
Directed by Jessie Nelson
Cast: Molly Gordon as Alice, Colton Ryan as Alfred/The White Rabbit; Mia DiLena, Zachary Downer, Noah Galvin, Ari Groover, Michael Hartung, Zachary Infantek, Andrew Kober, Grace McLean, Andrew Mueller, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Catherine Ricafort, Heath Saunders, Wesley Taylor and Natalie Walker.
Choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman
Set design by Edward Pierce
Costume design by Paloma Young
Lighting design by Bradley King
Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier
Hair, wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas
Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis
Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik, with additional orchestrations by Simon Hale
Music direction and vocal arrangements by Jason Hart
Production Stage Manager: Davin De Santis
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Newman Mills Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space 511 West 52nd Street
. From 2/10/19;opening 2/26/19; closing 4/07/19 (a 1 week extension before official opening).
Reviewed by Jacob Horn at 2/23 press preview

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