Theatrical Review – Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr.
By Dick Franztreb
You’ve heard of “movie magic.” Well I’ve just seen some dazzling “stage magic.” It was El Dorado Musical Theatre’s production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr. That “Disney” name may make you think of Disney’s classic 1951 film. Forget it. This is a reimagined show. Mercifully, it has nothing in common with Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland movie. Instead, it’s a fresh, kid-friendly romp through the general flow of the 1951 movie, full of creative staging ideas. Many of the original songs are not included, and most of the original songs that are included have been updated with contemporary stylings and cultural references. Especially notable is the addition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the best song from Disney’s 1946 movie, Song of the South. Frankly, I was delighted to see it in this show because, with the racial overtones of Song of the South, the original will never be remade, and today it’s impossible to even see the whole original. Putting it in this show helps save that happy song from obscurity.
This show is one of EDMT’s “Rising Stars” productions, which means that cast members range in age only up to eighth grade. Yes, they’re all children, but such talented children! And they have been developed into exciting, disciplined performers by Director Debbie Wilson, Choreographer Kat Bahry and Vocal Director Heather Clark. The show begins with all or most of them on stage â€” there were too many to count, but I’d guess there were easily 70, maybe even 80 performers, moving in remarkable unison, acting believably, and producing an ensemble sound in the song “Dodgsonland” that was unified and pleasing to hear. One more manifestation of the excellent coordination in this first number was the variety of entertaining walk-ons who spiced up the song.
I saw the Hearts Cast, which had Emily Fritz in the role of Alice. She’s an EDMT veteran at the age of 14, and she displayed a range of talent with fine acting and a good singing voice. I was particularly impressed with how consistent she was in maintaining a British accent. And her rap late in the show with the Queen of Hearts was amazing.
Another standout was Nick Ribadeneira as the Caterpillar, complete with a costume that had 6 gloved hands. Nick played the part with loads of confidence and style, leading the ensemble cast in what was essentially a hip-hop version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Later, he “turned” into a butterfly on stage, I’m sure to the delight of all the young children in the audience.
Another couple of performers who really impressed me were Drew Longaker and Cameron Renstrom as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Drew is 8 and Cameron 11 â€” young enough that I can get away with calling them cute and charming. But more than that, they followed complicated stage directions perfectly and mastered a lot of incredibly difficult dialog. Taylor Baker as the Queen of Hearts was delightfully nasty, and 9-year-old Tristan Russell as the King of Hearts was a scene-stealer from the start at about half the height of the Queen. There are 15 principal characters in this show, too many for me to call out individually. Suffice it to say that each one impressed me with the quality of their acting and singing, especially when I reminded myself how young they all are. I’m sure they’ll all be stars in future EDMT productions.
I haven’t yet mentioned the most surprising magic in this show. It was the projections on the various screens, and these were simply stunning. I thought that they must have been rented from Disney, but no, they were all the product of the creative genius of Projection Designer Zach Wilson, whose work gets more sophisticated and effective with each show. I understand that for Alice there were two backstage projectors and one projecting from the booth â€” all computer-controlled. There were also pairs of cut-outs suspended high on each side of the stage â€” “false pros” or “false prosceniums” that took masked projections to give greater depth to the stage. Besides detailed, colorful static images, there were animations that dramatized Alice’s changing size, such as when she grew in several steps to where her arms and legs were sticking out of the White Rabbit’s house. But the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance was the animated segment of Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole. It was an animated work of art that amazed all the adults in the audience â€” and seemed perfectly appropriate to the young children.
There were other works of art on this stage: the costumes, wigs and make-up. Alice in Wonderland is a fanciful show, and that fancy was a carte blanche to Costume Designer Karen McConnell and Makeup Designer Erica Wilson, the Wig Stylists and the army of backstage people who helped create one dazzling presentation after another. The variety in costumes from one scene to another was amazing, and so many are truly impressive creations, but my favorite had to be that outrageous hat worn by the Mad Hatter.
I marvel constantly at the quality of the productions of the El Dorado Musical Theatre. That quality rests on performing talent â€” especially the talent of those who train and direct the performers to deliver the “stage magic” that the audience sees. But there’s another miracle at work here. It’s the miracle of organization that gets so many people â€” on stage, backstage, and behind the scenes â€” working together. To be honest, I don’t really understand how they do it. But I’m sure that Producer Alicia Soto is the glue that keeps everything together â€” or maybe the grease that keeps things running smoothly for each show. And EDMT CEO Rick Wilson maintains the continuity of the organization, and earns the title of “executive” every time a problem has to be solved or an oversight corrected so that nothing is overlooked. But lucky you, you can forget about all that when you buy a ticket and take your seat. The lights go down, the music comes up, the curtain opens, and you can just sit back and enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds that all these people have created for you in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr.