So I’ve never really been much for porn. (Trust me, this is going somewhere.) I think I’ve seen exactly one porno beginning to end: the 1976 X-rated musical of Alice in Wonderland. It’s pretty much what you’d think it would be. Good-girl librarian Alice has a fight with her boyfriend and then falls asleep while reading the Lewis Carroll classic. She wakes up in Wonderland and goes through all the expected adventures, plus sex. Here’s a particularly representative sentence from the Wikipedia plot summary: “After being initially uncomfortable when the Mad Hatter exposes his penis to her, Alice ultimately performs fellatio on him.” Don’t worry, she was only initially uncomfortable.
Anyway, I haven’t done that much thinking about Alice in Orgyland in recent years, but during my recent viewing of the very dodgy new musical Alice by Heart, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music) — along with director Jessie Nelson, who contributed to the book — have taken an obvious path with their source material, so obvious that there’s already a porno out there. With its almost pubescent girl heroine, its probably pervy author, and its dream-nonsense scenarios that can quickly be spun into innuendos, Alice in Wonderland is practically No. 1 on the list of easily sex-up-able children’s lit. Sater and Sheik, who won all the Tonys for Spring Awakening, are clearly interested in the emotional and physical frisson of coming of age — and that’s cool. What’s less cool is their current show, which often feels simpering and winky rather than raucous and frank; which bounces between limp PG-13 salaciousness and a broadness and sentimentality that bespeak bad children’s theater; and which, at only 90 minutes, feels like a very long haul.
That’s the play — but Nelson and her choreographers Rick and Jeff Kuperman deserve major props for doing as much as they do with it. The Kupermans’ witty, athletic choreography is the show’s raison d’être, along with Nelson and her designers’ creative use of setting. The framing story takes place in 1941 in London (though, to listen to many of the actors’ accents, it might be set in 2019 in a theater that didn’t schedule enough dialect sessions). As the Blitz rages above, a harried doctor (Andrew Kober) and a tyrannical nurse (Grace McLean) keep order in a makeshift tube-station shelter. They’ve got a passel of young people to look out for — their provenance largely unexplained — and one of these, Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon) is a wistful, precocious type, clinging to a dog-eared copy of Alice in Wonderland and fretting over the precarious health of her best friend Alfred (Colton Ryan). As the play begins, Alfred’s condition is already dire: “Superventrical Tachycardia, with Hypovolemia … Hyperhydrosis … due to Mycobacterium Tuberculosis!” shouts the doctor, in one of the script’s many approximations of whimsical Carrollian rhythms. The boy is at death’s door, but Alice won’t have it. It seems she and Alfred used to play a game together as children in which they pretended to visit Wonderland. “Let me read to you,” she pleads. “I can make you well again. I’ll bring you to our world again. All this — we can make it disappear.”
This is the children’s theater part of the proceedings. I’m all for “the power of imagination” as a theme, but any theme starts to feel cheap when you rig it up in big, blinking neon lights. Alice by Heart has no hint of irony (the good kind) about it, and it’s hard to spark any heat with such soppy kindling. The play’s tendency for inspirational-quote-style emotionality only gets more rampant as the evening progresses and we hurtle toward inevitable lessons of the “If you love something, let it go” and “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” variety. Not only is it all too treacly to stomach, it also feels untrue to Carroll, who was too wry and weird, and probably too depressed, to be a sentimentalist.
The truth is that Alice by Heart doesn’t so much have a plot as a premise. Alfred is dying. Alice is horny. (Or, to put it more tenderly, she loves him and she’s always loved him and her body is changing and she wants him to see her the way she sees him and if that involves their making out a lot that would be totally acceptable.) She wants to prolong their time together and escape from the horrors that surround them. And when the wrathful nurse tears up Alice’s beloved book (“We’re well past make-believe!” she shrieks. “No wonder they’re burning books!” I wonder which Wonderland character she’ll become?), our heroine resolves to go through the story by heart. By force of will — and a song, “Down the Hole” — she brings Wonderland into being in the Underground, the shelter-dwellers become mock turtles and dormice and duchesses, and we’re off. But nothing of much note ever really develops: Every so often we resurface from riffs on familiar encounters — Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Dodo, croquet, etc. — and the situation is exactly the same. Alice: Still horny, still hopeful. Alfred: Still dying.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about putting a horny teenage girl at the center of a story, especially a fantasy universe, where female sexuality is often deeply mistrusted. Two decades ago, Philip Pullman wrote a fantastic essay where he tore the Narnia books a new one right on the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth, arguing that, for all its magic, there’s a puritanical misogyny inherent in the land beyond the wardrobe. What I object to isn’t a growing, changing, desiring Alice, but the smirking tweeness of Alice by Heart’s approach to sex. Gordon has to do a lot of grabbing and marveling at her own boobs, and Noah Galvin (who sings and swaggers well as a drag Duchess) gets a song called “Manage Your Flamingo,” which is fairly typical of the play’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor. (Flamingo = Vagina.) So are the multiple “chasing tail” puns thrown in Alice’s direction — since Alfred, in his Wonderland form, is the White Rabbit. (He has no time, get it?) Meanwhile, it’s distracting that Gordon, Ryan, and their compatriots are not so believable as teenagers — a generally accepted casting tradition that sometimes flies, and here just doesn’t. I’m not sure how old Alice Spencer is supposed to be, but the plot would seem to suggest … 14? Sixteen at the oldest? “My dear, you look your age,” sings the Queen of Hearts (McClean) in a raunchy, red-lit number called “Isn’t It a Trial.” What, you mean 25?
That issue aside, “Isn’t It a Trial” is actually one of the show’s stronger songs, big and blaring and full of show-off moments for both McClean and Heath Saunders, who plays a slinky, seductive Caterpillar. The real joys of Alice by Heart are to be found outside the script. It’s fun to see Nelson conjure familiar bits of Wonderland out of the scrappy trappings of Edward Pierce’s shadowy bomb-shelter set (with its looming clock, it almost feels like Harry Potter’s underground cousin). And costume designer Paloma Young is doing her own delightful alchemy, building turtle shells out of doughboy helmets, panniers out of parachutes, and — along with the Kupermans — a terrific Caterpillar out of the whole ensemble packed together in a line, doing creepy-crawly choreography in matching knitted arm-warmers. The Jabberwock (Kober) makes a menacing appearance, its monstrous spiderlike limbs made up of rifles wielded by the ensemble, and when Alice meets a chorus of indignant birds, their wings are fashioned from the pages of books, their faces from beaky gas masks.
The whole ensemble — especially Zachary Downer, who seems to be made of elastic and titanium — can dance fabulously, and several — like Wesley Taylor as a PTSD-riddled Mad Hatter and McLean as the nasty queen — are turning it in on the acting front. Whenever the Kupermans and the actors can let loose together, the show momentarily takes off, but Sater and Sheik have weighed it down with so much schmaltz, and tarted it up with so much half-assed sexiness, that Alice by Heart can’t help but feel like a slog. As a production, it has moments of real ingenuity and charm, but as a play, it brings to mind a line from Carroll’s King of Hearts, apparently himself a critic: “If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”
Alice by Heart is at MCC Theater through April 7.