Wrapping Lewis Carroll’s original Alice in Wonderland in a frame story set in 1940s London during the Blitz, Alice by Heart (by Steven Sater, Jessie Nelson, and Duncan Sheik) can’t quite make up its mind whether its source material is escape from, metatextual commentary on, or metaphor for its main plot–and in trying to be all three, ends up not really committing to any. It’s enjoyable and extremely well-produced and well-performed, but also scattershot and lacking in character development.
In a bomb shelter in the London Underground, populated by orphans, the occasional shell-shocked veteran, and a barely-holding-it-together medical staff, the fragile Alfred (Colton Ryan), the only survivor of the bombing of his family home, is about to be quarantined for tuberculosis, a diagnosis he will almost certainly not survive in the present conditions. Alfred and Alice (Molly Gordon), childhood playmates now on the brink of adolescence and also the brink of an explicitly romantic/sexual relationship, fight against being parted. Alice brings out the prized possession she’s clung to amid so much loss: a copy of Alice in Wonderland, which she intends to read to Alfred to draw him back to their golden childhood summers, hoping to hold him to life by anchoring him in their safer, treasured past. But when the matron/Red Cross nurse (Grace McLean) destroys her treasured talisman, Alice is forced to pull the story from memory–after all, she knows it, as the show’s title says, by heart.
With Alice as Alice and Alfred mostly as the White Rabbit–he who is always late (also, unsubtly, about to be late as in deceased), always running out of time, always disappearing on Alice–the ensemble takes on an interpretation of the Carroll original seen (mostly, though not consistently) through Alice’s and Alfred’s memories, harping heavily on a few key themes: the inescapability of time, the metatextual desire to pause a familiar narrative and linger in one’s favorite moments, and the impossibility of growing up in the literal captivity of a bomb shelter, an environment adapted entirely for moment-to-moment survival. (The latter keeps focusing creepily on Alice’s breasts–threatening to outgrow the familiar pale-blue dress that harks back to the Disney film–and burgeoning sexuality, including a truly bizarre song performed by the Duchess (Noah Galvin), famous in the original for the baby who turns into a pig, about how Alice’s maturation has literally sapped the sexual life force from her, turning her into a fat crone. The song is strange on its own, but stranger still when you consider that it’s meant to come from Alice’s memory of Alice.)
Any one of these themes might have anchored a musical, but in trying to pay service to all three, Alice by Heart seems to hit the same notes over and over; Alice may indeed grow to accept the inescapability of Alfred’s loss, to figure out that she must grow up, to go on with the story but through repetition of the same points, rather than an evolution in perspective that we actually see. And selections from the original book seem guided more by what would be fun to put on stage–mostly good impulses to be sure, largely due to the supple, inventive choreography of Rick and Jeff Kupferman–than what actually belongs to the story they’re trying to tell. The lobster quadrille and the bird ensemble, for example, despite Paloma Young’s clever costumes, don’t really get off the ground.
Jessie Nelson’s production, anchored by the Kupfermans’ choreography and a slate of strong performances, shines, but the book, by Nelson and Steven Sater, alongside Sater’s lyrics, feels like it never entirely got past outline stage. Duncan Sheik’s music, mostly meandering and melancholy in a plaintive minor key, is more interesting when harsher and more confrontational, notably when Alfred takes control of the narrative at one point, trying to force Alice into facing the inevitability of loss and grief–in particular, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party sequence (“Sick to Death of Alice-ness”), where a taunting, combative Hatter (Wesley Taylor), March Hare (Ryan again), and Dormouse (Zachary Infante) spit riddles at Alice and refuse her sympathy, and also the darkly humorous “Your Shell of Grief,” where an ensemble of Mock Turtles try to out-grieve one another and suggest to Alice that stasis equals safety.
Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan give Alice and Alfred a tender, unstudied intimacy, and both have singing voices well suited for the more contemplative of Sheik’s songs. The more bravura and extremely entertaining performances come from the characters who are some of Carroll’s weirdest: Heath Saunders and Kim Blanck as the two halves of the Caterpillar, tempting Alice into forbidden pleasures (Blanck is also lovely as the Cheshire Cat, who is something of a spiritual guide here); and Wesley Taylor, genuinely threatening as a more-than-usually spiteful Mad Hatter.
The combination of the Kupfermans’ work–which uses the actors’ bodies as part scenery, part prop, part animal–and Young’s costumes works every time. And Alice by Heart has moments when it all comes together: theme, source material, music, movement. There just aren’t enough of them.