The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Alice in Wonderland is one of those productions that must be accepted for what it is. In this case, it's Lewis Carroll's classic story adapted for the stage by director Kristin Katsu and the company of Showboat interns, along with a few of this summer's cast members. In truth, much of the show plays like it was written by high school students (as it was), particularly the early scene in which the cast gathers on stage and shares their hurts, frustrations, and dreams. The teen-centric concerns involving acceptance and the hopes of making a difference in the world came off a bit pretentious during Friday's performance, leaving me thinking, "Ah, youth." However, these young actors delivered their sentiments with such earnest sincerity that the play is rendered more tolerable through their joy and excitement in sharing their creation.
What doesn't quite work, though, is the company's attempt to tie modern teen issues with the story of Alice. The musical's theme song, "Am I Made Here?", includes the lyrics "we're all mad here, embrace the madness" and, in the finale's reprise of this number, it's stated that "we're all Alice." That doesn't quite translate through the course of the tale, and the production is somewhat disjointed as a result. While I liked the direction the play was taking as the teens expressed their worries, once the story of Alice picks up, this more modernist style - which reminded me of the opening number in Working - is lost.
Still, there is plenty to take away from this Alice in Wonderland experience, namely seeing blossoming performers sharing their passion on stage. There are snippets of genius in their creation, as well as a few memorable songs, and several actors offer performances that left me eager to see them continue to grow as Showboat actors. Included among them are the twins playing Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Emma and Cassie Van Zuiden, who take on these characters with a playfulness in their banter and knowing smiles on their faces as they toy with Audrey Simpson's Alice. Alice Lind also impresses with her bold commitment to the Cheshire Cat, giving the creature bounce in its personality and feline tendencies in the animal's actions, such as clawing at the door. Danica Smith, who stood out to me amidst the chorus in the Showboat's previous production, Wonderful Town, shines again with her ability to never drop character on stage and, here, her effective use of silence to portray her Mock Turtle as wise, if old and slow. Even Clayton Melvin, as one of the Queen's playing cards, manages to stand out as he bitchily delivers the line "It is her business and I will tell her."
Other actors show promise if they can overcome a few limitations. Audrey Simpson displays fine stage presence and poise, though her Alice seems less a character and more like Simpson (I'm presuming) playing herself in the role. The Mad Hatter scene, which should be the show's most exciting one, is actually the dullest of the evening. (This despite scenic designer Steven P. House's checkerboard floor and colorful, triptych-esque doors set on wheels - and rotated to create new settings - and costume designer Jenna Damberger's wonderfully eclectic designs that look as though the Wonderland creatures' costumes were created with found objects.) While Kate Struble's effervescently adorable Dormouse is a delight, Aiden McMinimy and Haley Appel seem hindered by a perceived unwillingness to let go and let loose and lose themselves in their portrayals of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, respectively, and the same is true of Savannah Medley's Duchess and Kayla Zeimet's White Rabbit. All these performers seem capable, but confined by insecurities or lack of experience.
That doesn't, however, explain why Nathan McHenry, with an overabundant employment of head bobs, proves less notable than in this summer's previous productions - though I imagine his lack of polish comes from a decision to tone it down and instead allow the interns their time in the spotlight. However, Jenna Haimes manages to shine without outshining others as the Queen of Hearts. With her mix of grace and condescension, she's accompanied by Erin Hardigan and Hailey Goble as they deliver the Queen's lines simultaneously, giving the character a sort of booming, echoing voice and increasing her threatening presence.
The Queen also has one of the best numbers in the piece, "Croquet," in which she lauds the exceptional qualities of her favorite game, delivering such amusingly rhyming lines as "there's not another game with such a lovely name." It's one of several songs written by various participants in the musical, among them music director Kay Satoh, and choreographed by Carly Ann Berg. Considering the cast created, wrote, and performed this production, the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Alice in Wonderland's imperfections can be overlooked, especially given the displayed snippets of promise from these potential future actors, writers, and composers.
Alice in Wonderland runs at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (311 Riverview Drive, Clinton) through August 17, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)242-6760 or visiting ClintonShowboat.org.