You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Wonder.land’ with Music by Damon Albarn

Simon Anthony, Sam Archer, Carly Bawden, Lois Cimimba, Leon Cooke, Nadine Cox, Ivan De Freitas, Hal Fowler, Anna Francolini, Adrian Grove, Paul Hilton, Joshua Lacey, Dylan Mason, Daisy Maywood, Enyi Okoronkwo, Lisa Ritchie, Stephanie Rojas, Abigail Rose, Golda Rosheuvel, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Ed Wade, Whitney White.

Forget the looking glass. Blur frontman Damon Albarn and playwright Moira Buffini take us through “Black Mirror” territory in “Wonder.land,” their musical reboot of “Alice in Wonderland.” Reframing Lewis Carroll’s fantasia as an online space — a “LittleBigPlanet”-style role playing game — “Wonder.land” becomes a parable about the status and ethics of our virtual lives. Reworked since the summer, it’s still something of a muddle, but, thanks to director Rufus Norris spectacular staging, designed to the nines, it’s a watchable one — albeit in dire need of a decent score. Albarn’s music hardly registers, and it leaves a big hole at the heart of the musical.

It’s curious. Albarn is one of the best pop songwriters in the world, and if anyone can compose a catchy chorus, he can. Yet the “Wonder.land” score refuses us any simple satisfactions, aiming, instead, for something sung-through and Sondheim-esque. Rather than numbers, Albarn gives us fractions: shards of songs that repeat and entwine — raucous tunes for the earthly realm, dreamier electro for the virtual one. They’re not bad in and of themselves; they’re just the wrong choice. Albarn’s had acclaim in opera (“Doctor Dee,” “Monkey: Journey to the West”), but Buffini’s book demands a different approach. Its archetypal characters need signature songs.

Thirteen-year old Aly (Lois Chimimba) shuts herself in her bedroom and seeks solace in her smartphone — maddening for her mother (Golda Rosheuvel). Bullied in the classroom and on social media, she finds a friendship group in the online space called wonder.land. As her avatar Alice (Carly Bawden) — blonde, blue-eyed and, significantly, white; everything Ally isn’t — she discovers a safe, supportive virtual space of like-minded misfits. It’s rather touching, actually: a stage full of on-screen oddities — muscular dodos, tweedle-twins, a 12-foot handicraft mouse — all confessing their IRL insecurities.

In all this, “Wonder.land” really gets the Internet and, as a family show, it’s admirably even-handed. It shows adults the appeal and utility of online activity, while stressing that parental nags might have some merit as well. Self-expression, e-addiction, cyber-bullying and escapism are all dealt with rather neatly. If anything, Buffini’s book is a bit too tidy in its build up to a big showdown between Aly and her headmistress Miss Maxome (a waspish Anna Francolini), who confiscates Aly’s phone and first adopts, then adapts, her avatar.

Transformed into the self-proclaimed, sword-wielding Red Queen, Alice turns troll – an acute observation of the destructive impulse in those not invested in a particular online culture. It’s on Aly to reclaim her alter ego, not to mention wonder.land itself.

Really, “Wonder.land” the show has been fatally mis-sold. With its bullies and parental break-ups, and, most of all, it’s misunderstood teens, it is basically a huge, ambitious piece of theater for young adults: the biggest, best-looking life lesson on the planet. There’s something cheering about the National devoting such talent and resources to that demographic, so it’s a shame it’s not being sold as such.

Because this a rare piece of theater that stands up to the spectacle of pop concerts and televised events. It looks extraordinary, so transfixing that it holds your attention despite its shortcomings in the storyline and score. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are magnificent, with one or two (Alice’s tessellated tutu, the skin-tight White Rabbit) all but iconic. Rae Smith’s set is transformed by pixelated projections from 59 Productions, fusing two layers of reality together to dazzling effect, and there’s some superb visual storytelling from choreographer Javier de Frutos. It’s a treat on the eyes. Shame the ears get left behind.

London Theater Review: 'Wonder.land' with Music by Damon Albarn

National Theatre, London; 1250 seats; £55, $84 top. Opened, reviewed Dec. 10, 2015. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A National Theatre production of a new musical created by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris.

Creative: Music by Damon Albarn; Book by Moira Buffini; Directed by Rufus Norris; Set design, Rae Smith; costumes, Katrina Lindsay; projections, 59 Productions; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Paul Arditti; music supervisoer, Tom Deering.

Cast: Simon Anthony, Sam Archer, Carly Bawden, Lois Cimimba, Leon Cooke, Nadine Cox, Ivan De Freitas, Hal Fowler, Anna Francolini, Adrian Grove, Paul Hilton, Joshua Lacey, Dylan Mason, Daisy Maywood, Enyi Okoronkwo, Lisa Ritchie, Stephanie Rojas, Abigail Rose, Golda Rosheuvel, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Ed Wade, Whitney White.

More Legit

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content