Alice in Wonderland

Written on May 23rd, 2016

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice in Wonderland, now on stage at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a feast for the eyes.  The extravagant costumes are interesting, the sets amazing, and the projections marvellous.  Any child, familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland, will be mesmerized by the vivid array on stage.

The play opens with Alice Liddell (Tara Rosling) and her two sisters in a boat with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Graeme Somerville) and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth (Kyle Blair).  Dodgson spends the afternoon telling Alice a story when suddenly the storybook characters come to life.Alice in Wonderland

But, let’s be clear, while it’s colourful to look at, the stories are a bunch of disconnected vignettes, and unfortunately, not so interesting to watch.  The play lacks glue to hold it all together, and sometimes it is difficult to stay attentive, even though little Alice declares that “there ought to be a book written about me.”

Among the highlights in the various scenes is a six-man, lounging caterpillar. Later, in the projections, we see a flock of beautiful Monarch butterflies rise into the sky.

The Cheshire Cat projections are also fascinating.  Played by Jennifer Phipps (who has been with the Shaw for 30 seasons and appeared in more than 50 productions), the Cat disappears, until only the grin can be seen.  Phipps also plays Alice’s grandmother in the scenes that are not in Wonderland.

The nonsensical conversation between the March Hare (Kyle Blair) and the Mad Hatter (Graeme Somerville) with the sleepy Dormouse (Patty Jamieson) draws the most laughs from the audience.  Blair returns later as the Gryphon – a giant blackbird on stilts – fascinating to watch as he maneuvers about.

Moya O’Connell is enchanting as the Queen of Hearts, as are all the royal family.  Kelly Wong as the Knave of Hearts gets to pull various silly faces while stealing the tarts.  And the crazy croquet game, complete with robotic hedgehogs for balls and flamingo mallets, captures interest.

One gimmick, while attention-getting, is of questionable value. The characters occasionally speak in chipmunk voices.  Are they given helium? Or is it a recording? Or are they just clever at doing squeaky high voices?

But in between the various highlights, there are many slow times that need to be punched up.  There are songs scattered throughout, but it’s more a play with songs than a musical.  Unfortunately, these songs don’t contribute much excitement.

Tara Rosling as Alice is appropriately petulant, but as the various sketches in Wonderland are presented, she becomes increasingly argumentative.  Her cranky attitude grows tedious.

When I studied Alice in Wonderland as an English literature student, we were told that Lewis Carroll wrote it after spending time in an opium den, as was the custom of the day.  This, my professor felt, was the only reasonable explanation for all the strange nonsense in the story.  Today, that idea is refuted.  Lewis Carroll is a nom de plume for Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote down the fantastic stories he told Alice, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.  So maybe Dodgson just had a wild imagination, which kept children enthralled.  Although he may not have been an opium addict, he is not without controversy.  Rumours still circulate as to whether or not his relationships with little girls were appropriate.

Come to think of it, there is a mention of magic mushrooms in the play.  Maybe that explains a lot.

Alice in Wonderland continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until October 16.  For tickets, visit or call 1-800-511-7429.

Photo:  The March Hare (Kyle Blair), the Dormouse (Patty Jamieson), and the Mad Hatter (Graeme Somerville) at the tea party.  Photo by David Cooper. 

Alice in Wonderland
Based on the play by Lewis Carroll
Adapted for Stage and Directed by Peter Hinton
Music by Allen Cole
Choreographed by Denise Clarke
Musical Direction by Allen Cole
Dramaturgy by Joanne Falck
Performed by Tara Rosling, Graeme Somerville, Moya O’Connell, Kyle Blair, Donna Belleville, Ben Sanders and Jennifer Phipps et al.
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
April 27 to October 16, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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