Thursday, December 29, 2011

Worst of 2011: #2

Worst of 2011
#2 – Wonderland

Carly Rose Sonenclar, Janet Decal, and Darren Ritchie in Wonderland

Frank Wildhorn has been a busy boy this year, with two Broadway premieres to his credit a mere 8 months apart.  He really should have reconsidered the order he premiered them in, because I am convinced the atrocity known as Wonderland killed the surprisingly good Bonnie and Clyde before it even started previews.

Now, I personally think the Alice in Wonderland story doesn’t adapt well to begin with.  The novel is a series of unrelated incidents that have no bearing on one another; because nothing Alice learns from one encounter influences her behavior in the next, the scenes can be placed in any order, and the only reason anyone would know is because we are so familiar with the source material.  (This is also why it is so easy for adaptations to add elements from the book’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass.)  In print, this works because of the whimsical descriptions and evocative imagery used by author Lewis Carol, but to make the story work onstage, adaptors are basically forced to create both a throughline and some kind of conflict.  Which means any adaptation of Alice in Wonderland faces an uphill battle, and the low quality of the resultant musical isn’t entirely Frank Wildhorn and his book writers’ fault.

But dear God, they didn’t help matters!  The score is made up of the most generic-sounding pop music imaginable, all of them highlighting Wildhorn’s bad habits as a composer.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a key change is not a substitute for emotion, and repeating a chorus 10 times does not automatically make it better or catchier.  At least in Jekyll & Hyde, another show I despise, Wildhorn was writing for the incredibly talented Linda Eder, whose luscious voice made all those ridiculous power ballads sound much better than they actually were.  No such luck for Wonderland.  Instead of Eder, we get the abysmal Janet Decal. 

As an ex-performer, I always try to assume the best about any actor, but Decal just sucks.  Period, the end.  She couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag, and her thin, reedy voice is not at all thrilling or inspiring to listen to.  There are chorus girls in a dozen other Broadway shows with far more impressive instruments than Decal possesses; hell, you could find a singer of her caliber in any decent undergraduate theatre program.  There is absolutely no reason this woman should be starring in a Broadway musical, and it honestly makes me angry that they cast her.

But Decal wasn’t the only one stinking up the stage of the Marquis Theatre.  Jose Llana was just as bad playing the Cheshire Cat, renamed El Gato for this “urban, modern” take on the story.  Llana’s only real success in the show was managing to cram every negative Latino stereotype possible into his limited stage time, which is not the sort of behavior that should be encouraged or rewarded.  And as the Queen of Hearts, Karen Mason chewed so much scenery that I’m surprised there was any left at the end of the show; maybe Wonderland’s rumored $15 million budget came from having the rebuild the set after every performance.  Watching reasonably talented individuals like Darren Ritchie and Kate Shindle (the White Knight and Mad Hatter, respectively) struggle to rise above all the crap going on around them was just plain sad.

The list of problems goes on and on.  The show was stuffed to the brim with outdated cultural references (if you still think boy bands are ripe for parody, Wonderland is the show for you!) and paper-thin characters.  There’s some nonsense about the grown up Alice regaining her inner child and patching things up with her estranged daughter and husband, who also appear in the Wonderland-set sequences like some third rate Wizard of Oz knockoff.  There were a couple of interesting stage pictures and perhaps three minutes that bordered on entertaining (not consecutive minutes, mind you), but on the whole this was one of the worst shows I’ve seen in a loooong time.

In the end, I don’t know which is more upsetting:  that a show as horrendously awful as Wonderland made it to Broadway, or that it was still only the *second* worst show I saw this year.

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