WHAT "Alice by Heart"
WHERE Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd St.
INFO From $35; 212-727-7722, mcctheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Intriguing riff on the beloved children's classic from the writers of "Spring Awakening."
You can brush up on your Lewis Carroll all you want, but don’t expect a traditional telling of his beloved children’s story in "Alice by Heart," the new musical now at the recently opened (and quite impressive) Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the team behind "Spring Awakening," have set this intriguing if complicated piece in an underground tube station during the London Blitz of the 1940s. As bombs fall and sirens blast, citizens in gas masks cower under cots, among them young Alice Spencer and her severely ailing childhood friend Alfred Hallam. Terrified, they seek comfort in a cherished book, and before long he has transformed into the White Rabbit and she has followed him down that hole.
Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan give sensitive portrayals of a young couple on the brink of love without enough time to finish their story, and they pour their hearts out in the gorgeous ballad “Afternoon.”
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe is wonderfully witty as a street-smart Cheshire Cat (act fast if you want to see her, though, she leaves the production in early March to play Tina Turner in London). Other standouts in the cast include Wesley Taylor as a soldier with PTSD who becomes the Mad Hatter, and Grace McLean as a by-the-book Red Cross nurse who becomes — who else? — the Queen of Hearts (she gets the show's knockout 11 o'clock number, "Do You Think We Think You’re Alice.")
Everyone has their favorite Wonderland character and I’ve always been partial to the Caterpillar, played here with charming deviousness by Heath Saunders, decked out in a brilliant psychedelic robe (costumes by Paloma Young). He gets an assist from the rest of the cast in the slinky choreography of Rick and Jeff Kuperman.
Directed by Jessie Nelson (who also worked with Sater on the book), the production is a hallucinatory take on the familiar tale, and it gets a bit muddled at times, hard to distinguish when we're in the shelter and when down the rabbit hole. Probably that doesn't really matter, better to simply enjoy the great music and the ultimately sweet retelling of the story about the young woman who never felt she was quite the right size and always felt she wasn't allowed to grow. And to reflect, of course, on how we all struggle at times with the need to fit in.