Review: Alice In Wonderland is a new all-ages classic

ALICE IN WONDERLAND adapted from the Lewis Carroll book by Fiona Sauder, with music by Landon Doak and Victor Pokinko (Bad Hats Theatre/Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House) until January 7. $25-$37.50. soulpepper.ca. Rating: NNNN


When Bad Hats Theatre premiered its thrilling new adaptation of Alice In Wonderland in a digital format in April 2021, I wrote that I couldn’t wait to see it “performed live when things return to normal.”

Well, things might not exactly be back to normal yet – will they ever be? – but live performances are here again. And director Sue Miner’s tweaked, restaged version of the show is one of the highlights of the season. This Alice deserves to become an all-ages classic.

Adapter Fiona Sauder, co-writer of the company’s enchanting Peter Pan, understands how utterly confusing and stressful childhood can be. Sauder’s Alice (Tess Benger) questions everything around her, from why trains in a math problem are late to what she wants to become when she grows up. She “wonders” a lot – so it makes perfect sense that when she’s disciplined by her teacher (Matt Pilipiak) and put in a corner of the classroom by a window, she starts staring up at the clouds and soon gets caught up in a tale that eventually takes her to the titular “wonder”-land.

The script is also very funny, including both hilarious modern one-liners and absurdities that are completely in the spirit of Carroll’s original.

The way Miner stages the transition between so-called real-life and a fantasy world of pocket-watch-wielding rabbits (Pilipiak, delightful) and narcissistic monarchs (Vanessa Sears’s Red Queen rules) is simple yet effective – making brilliant use of a series of desks and doors.

The show’s alley staging – with audiences on either side of the playing area – allows for efficient entrances and exits. When you return a second time – and this show is so good you’ll want to – you can savour how carefully the various comings and goings have been orchestrated.

Sauder’s decision to include a chess theme gives the production a clear stylistic look (squares are beautifully lit by designer Logan Cracknell) and a built-in momentum to Alice’s goal; she has to get to the eighth square to become a queen. And Ming Wong’s costumes are imaginative while still leaving room for a viewer’s imagination and an actor’s skill to complete a particular transformation.

I keep mentioning the word “transformation,” because it’s a central metaphor in this show – and perhaps in theatre generally. The way Sauder, Miner and the fine cast illustrate this is thrilling. Benger’s journey from inquisitive child to confident youth is exciting to watch, while Landon Doak and Sauder make a terrific duo playing everything from an energetic Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum to a bickering, nonsensical Mad Hatter and March Hare, who spout bored inanities you might hear at any Queen West café.

Impressively, all of the show’s music (composed by Doak and Victor Pokinko) comes from the cast, who play instruments, sing and dance (lively choreography is by Cameron Carver).

If the final third lags a bit, and the character of the Cheshire Cat (Aisha Jarvis) seems a little underwritten, no matter. This is still a magical show, as entertaining for children as it is adults. @glennsumi

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