We've come to expect the worst from Frank Wildhorn. The composer who gave us Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Dracula, the Musical has certainly made a name for himself, but it's not a name I'd mention in mixed company.
So perhaps it's not surprising that I entered Wonderland, Wildhorn's latest show to hit the main stem, with a profound sense of dread. However, halfway through the first act, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying the show.
Don't get me wrong: Wonderland is a godawful mess, a muddled attempt to capture a little bit of that Wicked-inspired, updated-classic cash and cachet. But Wonderland is not quite the abject disaster that many people were expecting. There are some genuine moments of delight amid the admittedly long stretches of tedium and ineptitude.
Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frank Wildhorn has pretty much always had trouble finding and keeping decent collaborators. Here, his production partners are Gregory Boyd (book and direction) and Jack Murphy (book and lyrics), with whom he also collaborated on The Civil War. I never saw Civil War, but it only lasted two months in 1999 on Broadway, and has pretty much disappeared since.
Their work here actually starts off surprisingly strong: the book and lyrics during act one have a sort of a sweet and occasionally smart tone. Early in the first act, once our modern-day, grown-up Alice (Janet Dacal) has been transported to Wonderland, we witness a raft of rapid-fire, character-introduction production numbers, and the songs, while unremarkable, were mostly landing the night I saw the show. This was in no small part due to a terrific cast of Broadway regulars, including E. Clayton Cornelious as the Caterpillar, and Jose Llana as El Gato (AKA the Cheshire Cat). The always reliable Karen Mason, whom I had the great pleasure of seeing as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, is a scream as the Queen of Hearts, and gives both of her big numbers a rousing delivery that in another day and age would have made her a star.
The first sign of trouble comes with the entrance of Kate Shindle as the Mad Hatter. It wasn't clear to me whether it was Shindle's fault or the authors', but suddenly the songs became uninspired and predictable, right down to their quotidian titles: "The Mad Hatter," "Through the Looking Glass, "Off With Their Heads." The holes in the plot and the dialog also started to show: for instance, it's not entirely clear why the Hatter takes an instant dislike to Alice and sets out to...well, come to think of it, I'm not exactly sure what the Mad Hatter was even trying to do to Alice. Just your ordinary, everyday malicious mischief, I suppose.
The real turning point for me, when the show started going downhill, was when late in the first act we suddenly we hit a plant-and-belt ballad called "Home," and we're transported away from the magic of Wonderland to the derivative, showboating world of Frank Wildhorn ballads. (Modulations included.) Even so, as of the act 1 curtain, I found myself thinking that this was the closest that Wildhorn had yet come to concocting a decent show.
Then came act 2, the rank amateurishness of which quickly dissipates any goodwill left over from Wonderland's flawed but passable act one. Once Alice has gone through the looking glass, we the audience have a mind-altering experience of our own to contend with: a libretto that becomes a muddled morass of clumsy exposition ("Wait. White Rabbit, don't you have that pocket watch that can turn back time?") and pop-psychology bromides. ("Don't you see, Alice? Wonderland is inside you.")
Wonderland's latter half put me in mind of the late and unlamented second act of Spider-Man, with its inscrutable plot developments, obtuse character motivations, and utterly befuddling denouement. Of course, the $70-million-and-climbing Spider-Man is taking a three-week hiatus to retool and to shed its much-maligned second half. Wonderland, budgeted at a mere $14 million, doesn't have that luxury.