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Alice by Heart Tries to Stop Time in Wonderland

The creators of Spring Awakening add a dash of fantasy to another coming-of-age musical at MCC Theater.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as the Cheshire Cat with Molly Gordon as Alice in Alice by Heart, directed by Jessie Nelson, making its world premiere with MCC Theater.
(© Deen van Meer)

A generation of musical theater lovers owes a debt of gratitude to Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, without whom the agony of adolescence would not have been eased by the liberating rage of Spring Awakening. Beyond indulging angry teenagers' insatiable desire to stomp around to "The Bitch of Living," what that musical did so well was find the no-man's-land between childhood and adulthood and swim around in all of its ambiguities: Girls discovering their bodies. Girls discovering boys. Boys discovering boys. And of course, there's enough shame and confusion to go around.

Sheik and Sater attempt to re-create elements of that success in their new musical, Alice by Heart, now running at the new Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. Alice even outlines the curves of her developing body just as Wendla explores the shape of her own, which has suddenly become offensive to the world. But while the score strikes several reminiscent notes, it smooths over the meatiest ambiguities in Alice's story in favor of gentle poetic metaphors (imagery of shadows, seasons, and butterflies can only carry your message so far). It may come out sounding very pleasant (as Sheik's folky pop tunes always do), but the result is far too tepid — both emotionally and cerebrally — to measure up to the eye-opening (and hopefully mind-bending) experiences that unfold in Wonderland.

Alice by Heart doesn't open in Wonderland, but rather in an underground tube station in London during the Blitz where a collection of tormented individuals have come to seek shelter (Edward Pierce designs a strikingly industrial set, which appears even more gray and dystopian under Bradley King's shadowed lighting). War may be the ultimate loss of innocence, but young Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon, lending a sweet voice and quiet self-possession to the title character) chooses instead to live her life inside the fantasy of her favorite story, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (her copy of the book is destroyed, but don't worry — she knows the tale "by heart").

Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan (far right) and the cast of Alice by Heart as the Caterpillar.
(© Deen van Meer)

The primary tension revolves around Alice and her best friend, Alfred (Colton Ryan aptly playing a teenage girl's aloof fantasy), who has become one of the war's many victims of tuberculosis. Aside from a natural desire to escape her bleak surroundings, Alice decides to sweep them both away to Wonderland in a Hail Mary effort to halt time — something Alfred has in limited supply. She becomes the Alice of Lewis Carroll's story, and Alfred takes on the role of the always-running-out-of-time White Rabbit. Their bomb-shelter comrades (a talented collection of character actors) take on other Wonderland creatures: Noah Galvin is fabulously grotesque as the spiteful Duchess; Andrew Kober adroitly spouts gibberish as the Jabberwock; Grace McLean makes for a sharp-edged Queen of Hearts; Nkeki Obi-Melekwe claims dominion from above as the grinning Cheshire Cat; Wesley Taylor pulls out his expert theatricality as the Mad Hatter and leader of the Mock Turtles; and Heath Saunders lends a seductive voice to the company's collective Caterpillar (imagine the cast of Hair passing a hookah through a massage train).

Aesthetically, Alice by Heart has stunning moments. From Paloma Young's wartime costume translations of Carroll's iconic characters (turtle shells become steel helmets, while the Jabberwock's appendages become rifles held by uniformed soldiers) to Rick and Jeff Kuperman's imaginative ensemble choreography, which delicately floats above reality — sometimes like a dream, sometimes a nightmare — and is consistently thrilling to watch.

The production's comprehensive design, coupled with the air of decisiveness in Jessie Nelson's precisely punctuated direction (Nelson also cowrote the book), ends up suggesting more clarity in the story than there turns out to be. Like the Alice of Carroll's stories, this Alice is driven by curiosity — hungry to explore the mysterious things that life has to offer, which now includes her maturing feelings for Alfred. Time is not her natural enemy. It only becomes one when it threatens to take Alfred away from her (and also has the real-life implications of global destruction). And yet, instead of exploring these competing impulses (or using anything other than design to address the international warfare that serves as the show's entire premise), the story's driving force becomes an intangible expiration date, leaving us to meander aimlessly through this magical maze, scratching off items on our Wonderland checklist.

You can't help but see the ghosts of Spring Awakening's Wendla and Melchior hovering a little too closely to Alice and Alfred, forcing them into the ill-fitting outline of star-crossed lovers. Perhaps they do qualify for that distinction as well — but if you're claiming to know Alice's story by heart and are telling the tale through the looking glass of romance rather than self-exploration, another read might be in order.

Colton Ryan and Molly Gordon lead the cast of Alice by Heart, running through April 7 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
(© Deen van Meer)