The creators of “Wonderland: Alice’s New Musical Adventure” have a few riddles to solve to add heart and clarity to their modern twist on Lewis Carroll’s classic. The new show from composer Frank Wildhorn is getting a tryout as part of a musical-theater development venture at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center).
Strong ticket sales reveal an enduring interest in Alice and her unusual friends, and this musical variation offers pleasures from an engaging cast, top Broadway designers and a catchy score that returns Wildhorn to his pop music roots after gothic-styled Broadway shows “Jekyll and Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Dracula, the Musical.”
The show is physically impressive, with Sven Ortel’s video projections adding an ethereal aura to Neil Patel’s sets. Susan Hilferty’s imaginative, time-spanning costumes and Paul Gallo’s lighting add to the visual rewards. And it sounds good, with a score that ranges from vaudeville to Broadway bombast, jazz, and variations on the last four decades of pop music.
But the story is confusing almost from the start, especially in the messier second act, when it drifts around and then rushes to an unemotional conclusion.
The book by director Gregory Boyd and lyricist Jack Murphy offers a modern Alice Cornwinkle (Janet Dacal), a descendent of Carroll’s original heroine, who is falling apart while struggling to have it all — a writing career, a husband and a young daughter. Husband Jack (Darren Ritchie) loves her, but he’s ready for divorce, and Alice is under constant pressure to finish her new book and come up with a title.
Hoping to save the marriage, daughter Chloe (Julie Brooks) jumps down the rabbit hole — or what passes for one in their Central Park West apartment building. She leaves clues for Alice to find her and hopefully rediscover what’s important in life as she meets an assortment of exotic characters in Wonderland.
The book troubles make it difficult for Dacal (“In the Heights”) to find the right balance in her performance. Though outfitted a bit like an older Annie, with red dress and red curls, she is vibrant with a touch of cynicism. But too often, Alice is left simply observing while other cast members get their star turns.
But what fun they are, from Karen Mason’s haughty, vaudeville-throwback Queen of Hearts, to Tommar Wilson’s slinky caterpillar. Jose Llana spins some Latin charm into Cheshire Cat variation El Gato; Edward Staudenmayer is flustered and nervous as the Rabbit; and Tad Wilson injects tension into his performance as the Jabberwock, though his song, “Misunderstood,” doesn’t help move Alice to her discoveries.
The same is true of the Mad Hatter’s “Nick of Time,” a vibrant dance number led by a deliciously wicked Nikki Snelson, who is better served by her opening song, “The Mad Hatter.”
Ritchie has lots of suave charm as the White Knight. He leads a backup group in the evening’s best song, the boy band-fashioned “One Knight,” which allows choreographer Marguerite Derricks to put a comical spin on the stereotypical moves.
As in “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wonderland characters represent a fantasy versions of the people constantly pressuring Alice, but there’s not yet a delightful or tear-filled resolution at the end of this rainbow.
The production is the first effort from the Tampa center’s new Broadway Genesis Project, meant to kickstart new musicals. President Judith Lisi emphasizes that it’s “called Broadway Genesis, not Broadway Terminus. We’re still working on it.”