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Alice in Wonderland (Review)

Cheering for cheer at Ensemble Theatre

By Mark Sterner · December 5th, 2008 · Onstage

Critic's Pick

The performance seemed to begin slowly, but like the amiable Rabbit (Michael G. Bath), I might have been in the wrong time zone. The production of Alice in Wonderland soon found its energy source, sending the performance spinning like a top, never to wind down again.

Alice is Lewis Carroll’s beloved whimsical tour de force, written as a cautionary lesson for the daughters of a friend. The story has been updated by Cincinnati playwright Joseph McDonough, with the addition of appropriately silly lyrics and catchy Pop tunes by David Kisor. McDonough’s book remains faithful to the spirit of the original, but he hasn’t shied away from adding elements familiar to contemporary young people — going to McDonald’s with friends and a concern for the Earth’s vanishing ecosystem.

The genius of this production is that it maintains a sharp focus amidst a veritable avalanche of characters coming and going, singing and dancing, playing intimate and crowded scenes.

Director D. Lynn Meyers is responsible for this juggling feat. The play could become an exhausting procession of episodes, but Meyers corrals the nonsense into tight ensemble playing. Even when the stage overflows, she directs the audience’s attention to what is most important.

The Mad Hatter (Shannon Rae Lutz), for example, is necessarily oversized but never pretentious. Lutz’s articulation, movement and facial expressions are flawless, and she captivates the audience. Alice (Lauren Shiveley) combines innocence with exuberance and feistiness, avoiding the annoying indicating and exaggeration that often occurs when adults play children.

The Queen of Hearts (Deb G. Girdler) is absolutely spot-on. Sporting a hat the size of a small front porch, her cries of “Off with her head!” are simultaneously ominous and comical. Playing one of Carroll’s truly schizophrenic characters, Girdler displays the kind of penetration that can focus attention like a prism, yet she generously shares the stage with everyone in the company.

Dee Ann Bryll’s choreography keeps the show moving and popping. The characters’ individualized movements are so varied that it’s tough to take it all in. My eyes roamed and received glimpses of stepping, spinning and bobbing characters. At times, the entire stage literally appears to be hovering off the ground.

Brian c. Mehring’s set is stately, with the potential for various levels, movement and surprise. Reba Senske’s costumes, so crucial to the success of a play populated by beloved fantasy figures, are phantasmagorical in terms of color, pattern and shape. They are particularly effective in defining movement as well as character.

I heartily recommend a dose of Alice’s rollicking holiday cheer. If you know a kid or two, take them along — but go even if you don’t. By the end of the evening I attended, everyone was cheering and cheered.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Jan. 4. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.


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