Baltimore Center Stage had “Lookingglass Alice” in its season lineup long before Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was on the radar or #metoo became a hashtag. And while this energetic and whimsical take on the beloved Alice’s trippy meanderings isn’t explicitly about female exploitation and empowerment, I couldn’t keep my mind from going there.
To be clear, the Center Stage production of this musical update is moving – in ways both foot tapping and “You go, girl!” gushing. It’s blessed with a versatile ensemble cast, and the lighting and costumes are extraordinary. “Lookingglass Alice” is the ideal holiday antidote to creaky Nutcrackers and ritual oratorios.
The piece, adapted by David Catlin for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, infuses purpose into Alice’s bizarre adventures and traumas while unblinkingly bringing the little girl’s creator, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), into the mix.
I’ve never been a fan of the original Alice books, which to me lack plot, character development and a transformative arc. Even so, they are packed with wordplay and scenes that can be best described as cultural memes – the Cheshire Cat, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, potions that shrink or swell, deadly chess and croquet games.
The story’s myriad remakes and adaptations, on the other hand, strive to project messages the original lack — about imagination, friendship, madness and girl power.
Rebecca Adelsheim, the production’s dramaturg, describes Alice “as a mirror for social anxieties.” If, in the Victorian original, that meant staying close to home and not chasing after sketchy rabbits, our anxieties today take an entirely different turn. A 2017 Alice shuns control and claims her place in the world. She looks down her nose at men who might manipulate her and seeks just the right amount of guidance from powerful female mentors.
At Center Stage, a wide-eyed Alice sings “I’m Afraid of Everything” early in the show, later joining with the saucy Red Queen to demand, à la Demi Lovato, “What’s wrong with being confident?”
Markita Prescott’s Alice is not only winsome and appealing – with powerful vocal cords and dance moves – she’s a precocious almost-12-year-old seeking her place in the world. Even as she longs for home (donning red shoes to underscore a parallel tale), Alice stomps her way from one metaphorical chess square to the next, on her way to becoming a queen.
Playwright/director Catlin hints at the complexity of the little girl’s friendship with Dodgson, but with respect. He suggests the older man’s fascination with the child reflects the author’s own discomfort with adulthood. By the end, Dodgson prefers to remain in the childlike Wonderland of his making, exhorting Alice to “pretend harder,” while Alice moves on to claim her place in the world, singing, “Time changes everything …”
On the other hand, maybe I’m reading too much into all this. At Baltimore Center Stage, “Lookingglass Alice” is, after all, a joyful romp. Every member of the small ensemble delivers – physically and vocally. Garrett Turner’s White Rabbit seems to scramble in air like the Coyote running off a cliff gravity-free.
David Darrow transforms each time he steps on stage – as the beguiling Cheshire cat, professorial Mad Hatter or uber-nerd caterpillar, contributing musical versatility with both voice and mandolin. Patrice Covington moves effortlessly from the belting Red Queen in shining scarlet wig and diva gown to the drowsy, yet knowing Dormouse.
While Lookingglass Theatre’s Chicago production was a Cirque de Soleil-style extravaganza of acrobatics and trapeze moves, this rendition benefits from choreography by Ronnie Harris – who pretty much birthed the concept of Street Dance in theater. All this is enhanced by a selection of songs – from Emile Sandé’s “Breathing Under Water” to Lovato’s “Confident” – that align with characters’ emotional truths in musical theater form.
Tim Mackabee’s set is simple – an elliptical stage with a curved panel of windows along the back, providing a sill for the morose Humpty Dumpty to take his predestined fall. Most of the scenic interest is created by Rui Rita, whose lighting sleight of hand includes floating bubbles, slashing brushstrokes on a curtain of ribbons and a wall of virtual shattering glass.
David Burdick’s costumes find the right balance between suggestion and goofiness. While the Cheshire cat is indicated only by a tail (and Darrow’s twitching face), the caterpillar has a series of green hands clasped across his chest like so many coat toggles; the White Rabbit wears white high tops and snowy dreds. Alice spends most of her time in a ruffled pinafore, in homage to both the original book illustrations and the later Disney likeness.
The ubiquitous Alice of Wonderland fame has a larger-than-life place in little girldom. We buy dolls, tea sets and pop-up books for our daughters, often without considering the complicated story behind this child who was beloved by an older, some say drug-addled author.
Here at last is an Alice for our times, who, like the fearless girl facing down the Wall Street bull, we can all cheer on.
“Lookingglass Alice” runs through Dec. 31 at Center Stage. Go to centerstage.org for tickets.
Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.