Review: Wonderland (Edinburgh Playhouse)
Frank Wildhorn's musical receives its European premiere in Edinburgh before embarking on a UK tour
Wonderland, Frank Wildhorn's musical based very loosely on Lewis Carroll's tales of Alice, played in four American venues in 2011 and in Tokyo in 2012, so it hasn't exactly taken the world by storm so far. Watching this, its European debut in Edinburgh, I can see why. There are things to enjoy, but also a lot that's pretty formulaic.
In this retelling, Alice is a put-upon single mum living in a bland estate in contemporary Britain. On her 40th birthday, she both receives word from her ex-husband that he is getting remarried and gets fired from her job. When a White Rabbit appears to her and her daughter Ellie – something which seems strangely unremarkable to everyone on stage – they disappear down the rabbit hole with their neighbour, Jack, and end up in Wonderland where they meet all the regular characters from Carroll's stories, but in guises that you would struggle to recognise from the books.
The central message of taking charge of your life and embracing your vulnerability is classic musical fare. However, the story is very generic, and, in places, the narrative-driving dialogue is excruciatingly mechanical. Furthermore, the plot has more threads than your mother's sewing box, only a few of which are tied up with any satisfaction. The quasi-political sub-plot of the Mad Hatter's attempts to overthrow the Queen of Hearts feels very laboured, and smells of an attempt to inject some tension into a story that is beginning to drag.
It doesn't help that the songs aren't particularly striking either. There's a typical ensemble set-up to begin and end each act, but the solo numbers aren't sufficiently memorable, for all that they're well sung. Only "Home", Ellie's main solo, was above the ordinary, and Alice's girl-power-bonding-song with the Mad Hatter just struck me as odd. For all the vigour that Natalie McQueen plays her with, the Mad Hatter doesn't make a convincing (temporary) villainess. The individual characters are all well enough drawn, and I particularly liked the lothario Caterpillar and the droll Looking Glass, but the plot isn't engaging enough to give the characters much to do beyond simply stating their business and disappearing into the mix.
None of which is down to the cast, who give their all to the material, though the big names don't really deserve their top billing. Wendi Peters' scene-stealing Queen of Hearts isn't given nearly enough to do, and Dave Willetts' White Rabbit is feeble of voice for his few songs. Kerry Ellis belts it like the best of them as Alice, but the overall finest is Naomi Morris' Ellie, who not only sings memorably but has the best comic turn of the evening when the Looking Glass turns her into a stroppy teenager.
Lotte Wakeham's staging is glitzy and colourful, and I liked the way the monochrome grey of the opening gives way, Wizard-of-Oz-like, to the gaudy technicolour of Wonderland itself. However, the show just isn't individual enough to have classic written all over it, and I'm afraid I can't really see it lasting much beyond its UK tour.
Wonderland runs at the Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh until 28 January, then on tour across the UK until August 2017.