Monday, June 13, 2011

Alice in Wonderland - Johannesburg

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Alice in Wonderland – at the People’s Theatre, Johannesburg

Back L-R Paige Karner, Emmanuelle Girard, Isabella Snyman, 
Front L-R Kieran Hariman, Lebogang Mpahlele, Soloman Cupido, Ryan Flynn

Reviewer: Neal McKenna

Directed by Jill Girard and Keith Smith

Alice in Wonderland, now playing at the People’s Theatre in the Joburg Theatre Complex, is a song-filled romp through a decidedly wacky-wonky world. With the Disney cartoon memory and the recent 3D film extravaganza, a stage production of Alice has its work cut out for it. However, this stage show does an admiral job of keeping everyone in the audience well entertained – even the very little ones.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, not Alice in Wonderland was written by English author & mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. Since its publication in 1865, the story has become one of the most cherished children's books ever! And to prove that statement, we all really do know what happened to the girl named Alice who fell down a certain rabbit-hole. 

One very refreshing aspect of Alice in Wonderland is that it does not present any obvious moralising. The story begins with a little girl’s difficulty in accepting the often mundane realities of the adult world. Alice's intelligent responses to absurdities of language in the real world and later, her reactions to the most bizarre, yet quite disarming, characters in Wonderland are reasons adults love Alice as much as their children do.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson created the pseudonym "Lewis Carroll," by manipulating his real name. Dropping his last name entirely, Dodgson translated his first and middle names into Latin, reversing their order, and translating them back into English. He first used this nom de plume in 1856 when he began writing comedic texts and stories. This way, he was able to distance his popular work from his serious mathematical writings, which he published under his real name.

Contrary popular belief, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” did not have the Red Queen, the White Queen, Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledum or Tweedledee as residents. They all made their first appearance in the sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.” However, in both iterations, the characters – from the testy Caterpillar to the sleepy Dormouse – are always fun and compelling. And this show’s Dormouse has a propensity to steal scenes. Not bad for a hand puppet!

In this production, all the actors do at least double duty if not triple duty or more in playing a variety of roles. Emmanuelle Girard is Alice’s older sister, Margaret; the Caterpillar and the Red Queen. Of the three parts, I personally liked her rendition of the drugged-out Caterpillar best. Her portrayal of the Red Queen was often forced but then again, that’s the kind of gal TRQ is.

Lebogang Mpahlele was ensnared in the thankless role of the White Rabbit. It is extremely difficult to get much characterisation out of lines like “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” and “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” In general, his White Rabbit is as obnoxious as any other over-anxious bunny in any other production of this show.

Kieran Hariman played a Reader’s Digest version of the Mad Hatter, did justice to Tweedle Dee and I don’t remember what he did to the Mock Turtle. Of the three characters, I think he liked doing the Mad Hatter best. It’s a pity the part was so truncated, he could have done a lot more with it had he been given the chance.

The King of Hearts, the March Hare and the Mamma Oyster were played by Soloman Cupido. As the king, he is a henpecked milquetoast, a sot as the March Hare and lunch as the Oyster. The roles are varied but don’t offer much opportunity for any kind of emoting.

 Of the adult cast, Ryan Flynn was the true stand-out. He played the Duchess, Tweedle Dum, Gryphon and the Cheshire Cat. As the slinky cat, he was able to sing and show off his dance training – several times. His take on the utterly bonkers Duchess was truly hilarious and he had all the girly moves down perfectly. Hmmmmmm. His performance as Tweedle Dum matched that of Kieran Hariman’s Tweedle Dee – good but not inspired. But hey, the guy had four parts to play and he did them well.

Isabella Snyman, as Alice, was the thread that held the show together. That’s a lot of responsibility for a not-quite 12-year-old. She has a strong presence and has a very good singing voice, starting the show off with the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965s hit “Do You Believe in Magic.” With a little more acting training, she is guaranteed to really wow audiences in the near future. And before I move on to the other "kid actors," I think it is quite unfortunate there is no information in the program about either actress playing Alice.

On the Saturday morning I saw the show, the Baby Oysters, Flowers and Cards were played adorably by Karabo Oberem, Skye Gilmore, Amy van der Hoven and Kaylin Stevens. However, these kids’ supporting roles are also shared with Hannah Hope, Kaylin, Kaira ToubotCinzia Chow, Kelly Johnstone and Adam Preston. ...And, the alternate Alice is played by Paige Karner.

Where this play fell down seriously was in set design which is a total misfire. The backdrop was far from whimsical and seemed to be thrown together from bits and pieces of productions past. In my humble opinion, set designer, Grant Kottenbelt, deserves a slap up the side of the head.

Alice’s costume was a real-life version of the Disney Alice’s and was spot on as were the Cheshire Cat (production costume not pictured above), the Caterpillar and the dizzy Duchess. The Cards, Oysters and Flowers costumes were very cute and worked well for the kids, so costume designer, Linda Wilson, scored points here. On the other hand, the White Rabbit looked like a refugee from a long underwear factory and the King appeared to be wearing a dressing gown and a crown. Reasonably good were the Tweedle Dum/Tweedle Dee costumes and the Red Queen’s hoopskirt concoction. The Mad Hatter seemed to be lost in his hat and the rest of his costume was rather ho-hum. The remaining costumes were obviously forgettable because I can’t remember them at all – so costuming was a bit of a hit and miss proposition.

Still, this production of Alice in Wonderland is not to be missed. And even if you don’t have kids, take your inner child out for a treat. The show plays through August 7th at the People’s Theatre in the Joburg Theatre Complex. Tickets at the box office range from R90.00 - R99.00.

To add your comments click on Links to this post below. It will take you to a stand-alone copy of this page. At the bottom, you will find the comments box, so feel free to let 'er rip. – Nealbo 

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