Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Wonderland: Needs more wonder
I have been a Frank Wildhorn fan for quite a long, time, since his musical Jekyll & Hyde first appeared as a concept recording in the mid-80s. Love it or hate it, Jekyll had a long and winding road to Broadway, where too many of its wonders were diminished by a director who seemed not to understand the material.
Since then, Wildhorn has composed other musicals, including Dracula, The Civil War, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Now comes Wonderland, an adultified version of Alice in Wonderland. As I listened to it, I was reminded of Cats and Wicked—but not in a good way. Those shows broke new ground, the ground Wonderland wishes it walked. Cats opened a world to us that had never been opened before, and Andrew Lloyd Webber used T.S. Eliot's poems expertly, even (at times) operatically. With Wicked, Stephen Schwartz took a hefty, thematically heavy book and created a pared-down tale that presented the witches of Oz in a startling, new way, while at the same time creating a metaphor about racism that touched the heart. There was something at work there.
I wanted something to be at work in Wonderland. But what I experienced was more of a parade of songs. Cats did that too, but there the songs sounded like they belonged in the same show. They were different styles, yes, but there was an undercarriage of musical theme. Of color. Unfortunately, nothing like that binds the disparate songs of Wonderland together, which are one moment calypso, one moment pop, one moment this, one moment that. The songs come from character, with little to hold them together.
Still, I waited for something more, something thematic to happen, a la Wicked. But then, not so much. Disappointing, to say the least. I'd hoped for this material to lend Wildhorn and his lyricist Jack Murphy a world of possibilities and fun—and though it may be on the stage (I haven't seen the show), it doesn't make it to the recording. As I listened to it, I found myself consistently underwhelmed. I kept wanting to feel something other than the desire to get to the end.
I also kept thinking of Into the Woods, which is based on Grimm's fairy tales. There, the expected show—the stories we know, though woven into a compelling tapestry by Stephen Sondheim—is Act I. Act II takes the stories further, turning granted wishes inside out and delivering a message about life's dreams and disappointments.
I wish Wonderland did that. I wish it tried that. I wish I'd loved it. But I know it's not my fault. To do that, Wonderland needed simply to be more, well, wonderful.