London at War, 1941, and a New Alice in Wonderland

Culture Watch
tags: reviews, plays, London, World War 2, theatre

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

LONDON, ENGLAND: The German Luftwaffe staged yet another bombing raid on London last night. Prime Minster Winston Churchill said the German Air Force, sneaking through the Royal Air Force defenses in the sky, dropped more than 1,100 bombs on the southeastern area of London. 122 people were killed and 42 injured in the raid, yet another strike on England by Hitler’s Germany

Below ground, hiding with tens of thousands of others in London’s underground train stations, was Alice Spencer, a teenager whose boyfriend, Alfred, is slowly dying of tuberculosis and lying on a nearby cot. She cares for him in the crowded station while reading her favorite book, Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There is a series of explosions, the lights go dim and suddenly, without warning, Alice, looking for an escape from the grimness of the scene, and the poor health of her love, tumbles down an underground rabbit hole, pulling some of the other people in the train station with her. They all find themselves in Wonderland, populated by the Queen of Hearts, Mr. Caterpillar, the White Rabbit and others, a thoroughly zany place to be while a World War rages above them.

This is the very unusual start of Alice By Heart, a new musical with book by Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Sater, that just opened at the new MCC Theater at 511 W. 52d. Street, in New York. It starts slowly and it takes a while to figure out who is who and what the authors are trying to do with the 154-year-old Carroll classic story of the girl who chased a rabbit and fell head first down a hole into Wonderland. About twenty minutes into the musical, though, everything starts to click. What follows is a highly amusing, thoroughly enjoyable and at times brilliant show, a unique and highly creative re-invention of Carroll’s timeless story.

In the play, the British Alice goes through many of the same adventures as the Alice in the book, cavorting with the Caterpillar, chasing the White Rabbit and shaking her head at the antics of the Mad Hatter. She is put on trial by the Queen of Hearts, a delightful character who must have the loudest and scariest screech in the world. She could wake up people in Brazil with that screech. At the end of the Wonderland trip, she returns to the shelter to try to save her boyfriend.

What makes Alice by Heart succeed is the stellar skill of its ensemble cast. Each person not only acts out his/her role, but pays careful attention to the movements of the others. The two stars of the show are Molly Gordon as Alice and Colton Ryan as Alfred. Others in the fine cast include Kim Blanck, Noah Galvin, Grace McLean, Catherine Ricafort, Heath Saunders, Wesley Taylor and others.

 Jessie Nelson does a fine job of directing the play. The choreography, by Rick and Jeff Kuperman, is very impressive. 

The musical has some wonderful special effects. As everybody knows, the Queen is always asking for people to decapitate Alice (“Off with her head!). They do that in the show. As Alice sings, you see her shadow on a large white sheet. After a few seconds her shadow is rather neatly beheaded. In another scene one actress douses Alice with a magical dust that slowly hovers in the air. People in gas masks run amuck. At the end of the play, there is a wonderful musical number about the Mock Turtle in whish soldiers sing and dance in a wondrous mass. There are people popping out from underneath a woman’s skirt, a caterpillar who grows in size as people jump on and off of him. The magnificently dressed Mad Hatter leaps onto and off of a table.

The musical does have its flaws. It has a slow and dreary start. The music is OK, but after while some songs sound just like another. There is also too much bouncing back and forth between the underground station and Wonderland.

The writers should also have included more history on the “Blitz” bombing of London by the Luftwaffe during the war. My father was a GI in London in WW II and he told me really scary stories about hiding out in the underground during the bombings. The playwrights should have given audiences a better picture of that. The British use of their subways as bomb shelters was fascinating. During the height of the bombings the Luftwaffe struck just about every night of the week. The subways held roughly 150,000 men, women and children, who got on line at 4 p.m. to secure a spot in the underground train shelters. The shelters were run by the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other charitable groups.  Concerts, films, plays and books donated by local libraries were used as entertainment for the residents.

The shelters were not completely safe. Direct bomb hits wiped out some, killing hundreds. 173 people were trampled to death in a panic that followed a woman’s fall down the stairs in the Bethnal Green subway station.

Lewis Carroll’s two books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass(1871) generated forty movies and television show and, of course, the rock and roll hit “White Rabbit,” performed by Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane in the late 1960s.

Despite these small complaints, Alice by Heart is a smart, nifty show about London in World War II and yet another colorful tale of the Mad Hatter and Wonderland.

Can you really spend a better evening than chasing a white rabbit trotting through the forest with a pocket watch in his hand?

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the MCC Theater. Set Design: Edward Pierce, Costumes: Paloma Young, Lighting: Bradley King, Sound: Dan Moses Schreier. The play is directed by Jessie Nelson and choreographed by Rick and Jeff Kuperman. It runs through April 7.

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