Creatives from every discipline have tried to make Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale “Alice in Wonderland” their own, only to find themselves falling down an artistic rabbit hole. The new interpretation now inaugurating a spiffy new home for Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, “Alice by Heart,” also joins the ranks of adaptations that have gotten tangled up in the details of nonsense, despite some dreamy melodies (from “Spring Awakening” Tony winners Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), clever staging and a welcome emotional arc for the title character.
Set in 1941 in a London Underground station, a group of young people and misfits find refuge during the Blitz. But it might as well be an insane asylum, because everyone there is traumatized in the extreme, including the adult caregivers. The conceit of layering madness on madness, while intriguing at first, becomes tiresome, as the players enter and exit Wonderland in the production’s wobbly double-narrative.
At least this Alice (Molly Gordon) is less annoying than in other versions. For this coming-of-age take, she is presented as a pre-adolescent showing substantial growth, both physically and emotionally, as she learns to leave childhood behind in order to enter a less innocent world filled with grim realities and tragic losses.
Making it a kind of “Spring Awakening” for this Alice would seem like a perfect fit composer Sheik and lyricist Sater, who with Jessie Nelson (“Waitress”) co-wrote this book. And here Sheik’s best melodies — like “Afternoon,” “West of Word” and “Still” — have that haunting ache of young dreamers.
But the twin tales are burdened with so many symbols, riddles, wordplay and metaphors that it all ends up more exhausting than invigorating. Worse yet, it’s just no fun, even when things get curiouser and curiouser.
Alice at first comes across as a pre-possessed girl who seems the most grounded in this ensemble of lost youths — at least until her friend Alfred (Colton Ryan) is brought in and diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis.
Her efforts to lift his spirits by reading their beloved Carroll tale are met with unreasonable fury by a fearsome nurse, later the Queen of Hearts (Grace Maclean), who destroys Alice’s precious book. Alice, though, has memorized the story — hence the show’s title — and continues the narrative for Alfred surreptitiously as she tries to find an escape for both of them in this alternate universe.
In Alice’s dreamscape, her sick friend becomes the White Rabbit obsessed with time — as in “running out of” — and other youths from the subway station become various Carroll characters whom Alice meets along the way in her efforts to seek a safe haven. (Think “Alice and the Starcatcher.”) But she also discovers first love, a changing physique and a loving heart.
Also giving the show a lift is the staging directed by Nelson, along with the imaginative choreography by Rick and Jeff Kuperman. Using the props at hand — crutches, helmets, gas masks, curtains and cots — they conjure croquet matches with flamingos, turtles hunkered down for a shelling and garden doorways.
The cast is solid, though the peripheral characters are thinly drawn even as their surreal alter egos revel in extravagance. Wesley Taylor has an especially fine time as the Mad Hatter, and Andrew Kober takes on five roles with flair, including King of Hearts and an imposing Jabberwocky.
But individual characters or moments or melodies aren’t enough. Though a coming-of-age approach gives this Alice some distinction, a wonder it is not.