Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wonderland through the looking glass

Copyright Ken Howard, 2012
Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Alice in Wonderland
When: June 13-June 23, 2012
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center

Congratulations are in order for the orchestra, chorus, and the wonderful cast of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's Alice in Wonderland, and especially for soprano Ashley Emerson as Alice. They do exceptional work with difficult and, ultimately, not very persuasive material. The opera pushes the performers and the company’s technical capabilities to their limits, but does so for no valid dramatic purpose. This is flash for the sake of flash, and it gets tiring rather quickly.

The problem, in my view, is that librettist David Henry Hwang and composer Unsuk Chin have extended, augmented, and generally beaten to death Lewis Carroll’s whimsical and witty creations. They have added irrelevant contemporary cultural references and have bookended the whole thing with a prelude and postscript that seem to have been dropped in from a German Expressionist cabaret. Your mileage may vary, but I found it rather heavy going.

That’s not to say that Mr. Hwang and Ms. Chin haven’t put a lot of brains and talent into this Alice. Mr. Hwang’s impressive credentials speak for themselves, of course, and his expansions of Carroll’s text are often brilliant, particularly in the Mad Tea Party sequence. But they’re mostly in a radically different and aggressively contemporary style that has little to do with the original. They also tend to outstay their welcome. Yes, having the Dormouse turn his story of the three sisters in the treacle well into a rap number is funny for about thirty seconds, but after that it becomes tiresome.

Ms. Chin’s impressively eclectic score is a treasure trove of nearly every musical meme of the last half century. It’s clearly the work of an immensely bright and gifted composer, but it’s often too clever by half, employing elaborate musical and percussive effects that detract from the text rather than amplify it. This is most obvious in her settings of Carroll’s verses, every one of which goes to great lengths to break the meter of the original, thereby draining much of the comic effect. Like the March Hare, she’s murdering the time.

All that said, Alice is very nearly redeemed by the impressive performances of its huge cast. Ashley Emerson, who was such a delight in Daughter of the Regiment last season, simply could not be better as Alice. Her diminutive stature is perfect for the part and her voice, while sometimes lacking the power needed to pierce Ms. Chin’s orchestration, has the flexibility and range the role requires. Ms. Chin seems to be fond of pushing her singers to the upper and lower limits of their voices, and towards the end Alice is required to hit some notes only dogs can hear.

Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock is a wonderfully deranged Mad Hatter, but he’s equally effective in the Hatter’s very non-canonical lament for lost time. Tenor Matthew DiBattista shines as the rapping Dormouse and countertenor David Trudgen is a fine Rabbit and March Hare. Mezzo Jenni Bank has a nice turn as the hip-hop Duchess and soprano Ashley Logan is an appropriately abusive Cook.

Soprano Tracy Dahl, a familiar figure on the Opera Theatre stage, has a lovely turn as the Cheshire Cat, while soprano Julie Makerov exudes homicidal glee as the Queen of Hearts. Choreographer Se├ín Curran makes a rare on-stage appearance in two pantomime roles: the Caterpillar (accompanied only by James Meyer’s bass clarinet) and the Mock Turtle.

He’s great fun in both, although the Caterpillar’s sequence is another example of a joke that goes on too long, and having the unspoken dialog projected on the screens used for the projected English text might be a problem for those with visual impairments. If you’re going to do a scene in pantomime, it shouldn’t require subtitles.

There are many other fine performances in this cast—so many, in fact, that I can’t list them all here. I will say that there doesn’t appear to be a weak link in the lot, which is pretty remarkable given that there are 35 named roles altogether.

If his enthusiastic program notes are any indication, director James Robinson loves this Alice at much as I don’t, so it comes as no surprise that his blocking, pacing, and stage pictures are all exemplary. There are places where the action is likely to be baffling to anyone who is not familiar with the original novel (the business with Bill the Frog-Footman, for example), but that has more to do with the adaptation itself.

Fanciful sets by Allen Moyer and Tenniel-inspired costumes by James Schuette add to the strong visual appeal of the show, as do Ashley Ryan’s wigs and makeup. Lighting designer Christophe Akerlind and video designer Greg Emetaz also bring Wonderland’s magic to life.

Conductor Michael Christie and members of the St. Louis Symphony do a marvelous job with what sounds like a very challenging score, as does Robert Ainsley’s chorus.

For me, the bottom line on Alice in Wonderland is that all the truly spectacular work by the performers and designers is not ultimately enough to compensate for what I see as a fundamentally wrong-headed attempt to “improve” Carroll’s creation. There’s a fine line between the respectful adaptation and the complete deconstruction and re-write. This Alice crosses that line. I didn’t care for the results, but of course, your mileage may vary, and the production itself is certainly beyond reproach.

Alice in Wonderland continues through June 23rd at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may visit

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