‘Alice By Heart’ runs through April 7 at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. 511 W. 52nd St., mcctheater.org.
“Alice By Heart,” a new folk-pop musical inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” and written by the “Spring Awakening” team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist-writer Steven Sater, raises serious questions about the purpose of art in hard times, escapism and grief. But one question that really stuck with me (and that I am still debating) is whether “Alice by Heart” was more difficult to sit through than “Wonderland,” Frank Wildhorn’s overblown and flashy “Alice in Wonderland” musical, which flopped on Broadway in 2011.
Directed by Jessie Nelson, “Alice By Heart” juxtaposes the fanciful world of “Alice in Wonderland” with teens who are taking shelter in an underground train station and suffering from psychological and physical trauma during the London bombing blitz of 1941. Edward Pierce’s set design is sleek and menacing.
Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon, assertive and desperate) arrives at the shelter after her home has been reduced to rubble, accompanied only by her treasured copy of “Alice in Wonderland.” She then spots her friend Alfred (Colton Ryan), who is dying of tuberculosis. Alice — who knows “Alice in Wonderland” by heart, hence the title — attempts to bring Alfred back to health by re-enacting with him episodes from the book and role playing (Alice as Alice, Alfred as the White Rabbit), just as they would do as children.
The other youths and medical staff take on familiar characters, including the Mad Hatter, Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and Queen of Hearts and use found objects as props, such as gas masks and rifles. The concept is not unlike “Man of La Mancha,” in which Cervantes enacts the story of Don Quixote with fellow prisoners in a dungeon.
Rather than being a feel-good exercise, Alice now finds Wonderland to be a dark and creepy place, where the characters question her motivations and actions. Although sincerely intended and full of creative touches, “Alice by Heart” is a disjointed, depressing and bewildering mess. It would be near impossible to follow it without a working knowledge of the source material.
Sheik and Sater’s songs are mellow and hazy and have little integration with plot, lacking the vitality that supercharged the best moments in “Spring Awakening.” Interestingly, Sater again uses lyrics that evoke nature, but here it’s autumn and winter instead of spring and summer.
Considering that “Alice in Wonderland” is a classic novel in the public domain, virtually anyone can write a musical based on it. Perhaps a good one will turn up someday.