Wonderland | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Mon 27 – Sat 01 April 2017
By Conor O’Neill
Like Ronseal, Wonderland does exactly what it says on the tin, and more but classic Lewis Carroll is not what is on offer here; instead this musical is based on a book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy. If there’s a twist to be made from the original plot, it will be … and alas, not always to the musical’s benefit. But more on that later. What is beyond words and magical is seeing Broadway and West End stars tread the hallowed boards of the Grand Opera House. A more fitting stage for this camper than a bath of glitter show.
Alice (Kerry Ellis) is a 40-year-old divorcee who’s having a bad day. Apart from losing her job, she also finds out her ex-husband is about to remarry. Living in the past for so many years sets the rest of the plot neatly in order. Accompanied by her teenage daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) – which I assume to be a pun on the elixir? – and her haphazard and doting neighbour Dave (Stephen Webb), they follow the White Rabbit (David Willetts) down a lift to Wonderland, leaving behind both their meagre past-lives and the hellish looking tower-block reminiscent of Del Boy’s Peckham estate.
All the usuals are here, from Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the March Hare, and the Cheshire Cat, who’s a hell of a lot funkier than what I remember from the book. Talking about funk and soul, special mention must be made for Kayi Ushe’s caterpillar who I think should have had more lines and more time; and boy the man can sing. The Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) is both mad and vying to end Wendi Peters’s Queen of Heart’s rule of the land by setting up some quasi-socialist state. A trace too far from the original, but the plot is neatly saved as they all, with some reservations, jump through the looking glass, lustrously voiced by John Finnemore, to become the exact opposite of who they are and who they want to be.
But minor plot issues aside, what’s really on offer are some great big tunes and seamless choreography by Lucie Pankhurst. Hats off to Frank Wildhorn for the score, Jack Murphy for the lyrics and the faultless directing of Lotte Wakeham. Running from your usual ballads, there’s a rock riff so stiff and heavy it must have been written after a skirmish between Brian May and Slash following a fist-fight over Hugh Hefner’s Viagra stash. The chorus and every cast member multi-task their way through umpteen tunes, rarely putting a foot or word wrong. And unlike some musicals where there’s music for music’s sake, Wonderland has a more gentle approach. Yes, expect the big four-to-the-floor stompers, but the narrative and acting does allow the characters to grow, and with that our empathy swells.
As opening night’s go, and with 800 of the 1040 seats filled, I’m sure the rest of the run will get the standing ovations of last night.
Wonderland runs until Saturday 01 April. For booking details visit: www.goh.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890241919