From left to right: Robert Vardiman, Genevieve Lefevre, Amari Lewis, Douglass Walker, Danny Gage, and Courtney Germany in “Alice’s Wonderland.” (Jim Vaiknoras/The Coterie Theatre)
Alice’s Wonderland—the effervescent, enjoyable new hip-hop musical making its world premiere at the Coterie Theatre—is what you might expect just from the title, and, also, it’s not. As reimagined by co-creators J. Quinton Johnson and Julia Riew, the characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic are instantly familiar, but the context is totally fresh—a famous fable dynamically reengineered for a new generation. This Alice has adventures, but she also has mad skills.
Unlike Carroll’s passive protagonist, who simply falls through a rabbit hole into a strange new world, the Alice we meet is a talented, rapping teen coder who has created a world of her own: an online video game called Wonderland, in which “anyone can be a hero.” When her friends—at least, her internet “friends”—seem underwhelmed, Alice begins to doubt, obsessively ironing out the glitches until, despairing, she pulls the plug on the whole thing (literally, not figuratively).
That’s where the virtual surreality begins, as Rabbit—with Beats headphones for bunny-ears, his clock swinging from his neck, Flavor-Flav-style—hip-hops onstage to pull Alice into her own video game, where each new level brings another adventure—and another entertaining character song.
Directed by Bri Woods, the six-member ensemble plays well together, and each gets a moment (or two or three) to shine. Genevieve Lefevre is a charismatic, committed Alice with a powerful singing voice and a knack for precise rhyme when called upon. Robert Vardiman’s friendly, fretful Rabbit is fun to watch, and Courtney Germany exudes cool as the (Cheshire) Cat. Meanwhile, Danny Gage renders a hysterical, tea-addled Hatter—maybe he’s not mad, just over-caffeinated?
One of the best moments and most pleasant surprises comes when Douglass Walker, as a giant caterpillar partial to burritos, belts into song, beautifully, a few octaves higher than anticipated. And the most commanding number belongs to Amari Lewis’s Queen, who is diva-ready, should Six ever need a seventh.
Marc Wayne’s unassuming choreography propels the action from scene to scene (or, rather, level to level), as do a series of video displays (animations by Caitlin Dreher; projections by Selena Gonzalez-Lopez), all playing out on a superb set (by Adam Hooper, who also handled the props), which, with its comically large electrical plug and laptop-screen proscenium, pays tribute to the original Wonderland.
Johnson and Riew co-wrote the book, music, and lyrics (based on a treatment by Linda Chichester and David Coffman), and the score is a pleasing mix of Billboard 100-style hip-hop, pop, and R&B. A comparison to Hamilton is hard to avoid, especially since Johnson—also an accomplished actor—just completed a turn in the show’s Broadway cast, and Alice’s Wonderland also refreshingly and naturally features a cast of people of color. And, of course, there is also the retelling of a historic story.
When it comes to source material for a show that speaks to the digital age, you could do a lot worse than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which initially appeared in 1865, more than a century before the first home computer or any inkling of the internet. Carroll’s fantastical novel offered readers an escape from the world they knew; Victorian critics described it—not insultingly—as “nonsense literature.”
Which feels right for our current condition—after all, we spend hours staring through the looking-glass of our digital screens, and “falling down a rabbit hole” is now common shorthand for getting lost on the internet. (Seriously—The New Yorker published an entire essay on it.)
So Alice’s Wonderland is a winning concept—especially if it connects with kids.
Despite this Alice’s adolescent angst (in the original novel, she’s only seven), the show seems tilted to younger audiences—such as the kindergarten-age campers who, cross-legged and wide-eyed, filled the floor in front of the stage. Even with its tech-savvy frame, Alice’s Wonderland still has a storybook ending, with a straightforward lesson (not to be a spoiler, but it has something to do with believing in yourself) that could prompt inspiration or eye-rolling, depending on the audience’s level of age-induced cynicism.
Regardless, the Coterie deserves credit for being the first company to bring this imaginative show to life. Alice’s Wonderland offers a new way to escape and engage with one of literature’s great fantasies, plus something the original doesn’t—a rousing final number that sends you back to the real world with a smile.
“Alice’s Wonderland” runs through August 7 at the Coterie Theatre, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call 816-474-6552 or visit www.thecoterie.org.