It’s possible that White Rock Players Club’s current Christmas pantomime, Alice In Wonderland, may not please panto purists, or those looking for a straightforward ‘coarse-theatre’ laugh-riot, or even those to whom Lewis Carroll’s original words are sacred.
But don’t tell that to the packed house with which I enjoyed Lisa and Sara Pavilionis’ strange – and very ‘trippy’ – foray into Wonderland recently.
They were with this bright, colourful spectacle right to the end – including many youngsters so engaged that they were talking back to the characters on stage, and booing and cheering just as loudly as their parents (this in an era when attention spans are reckoned to be shorter than ever, thanks to such online phenomena as Pokemon Go, lampooned extensively in the current production).
The show, co-written by the sisters and directed by Lisa, is more smile and chuckle-provoking than cause for belly-laughs (except for the welcome and consistently absurd clowning of Bryce Mills as the dame – this year in a double role as Baroness and the Walrus – and the well-achieved facial expressions and body language of Ryan ‘Tiny’ Elliott as ‘Donald of Trumpington’).
But it is entertaining all the way through, even if hindered at times by some overlong pauses; a few scenes and running jokes that could stand some trimming – and a tendency for some players to ‘swallow’ or gabble lines.
This Alice In Wonderland is also one of the weirder pantomimes I have encountered. But a certain weirdness seems appropriate for the Pavilionis’ take on the tale, which – borrowing from the most recent Disney version and, perhaps, the complicated milieu of fairytale characters popularized in TV’s Once Upon A Time – sends a teenaged Alice down the rabbit hole, in pursuit of her true love.
One doesn’t, after all, expect a panto dame song the likes of I Am The Walrus, which (even granted the comedic broadness of Mills’ performance) has surprising fidelity to the Beatles surrealistic original.
Nor does one expect a panto to contemplate the nature of true love, or its less-than-smooth course – or deal with concepts of pre-destiny and the dualities and deceptions of appearances. Yet all of these lurk in the Pavilionis sisters’ subtle, multiple-level script, to a positively Shakespearian extent.
It may seem fanciful to make such comparisons, but this ‘Alice’ reminds me of nothing so much as the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – if not in language, in its balancing of farcical and magical elements with deeper themes.
There are parallels, whether consciously or unconsciously. Like the Athenians who venture into an enchanted forest, Alice (Penny May Shogun) – and even her disguised true love – come to Wonderland from a court of nobility; inept ‘villains’ Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Lionel Rust playing a good straight man to Nicholas Dyke’s splendid dimwittedness) and the Walrus and the Carpenter (a capable, self-contained performance by Jeff Nordstrum the night I attended) fulfill much the same mandate as both Shakespeare’s Puck and his crude ‘mechanicals.’
Even more tellingly, the frequent arguments of fairy-substitute the White Rabbit (Jenn Lane) and the Demon/Cheshire Cat (Rachel Nordstrom) have echoes of the conflict – and the romantic history and sexual tension (gasp!) – of immortals Titania and Oberon.
Lane, while some of her lines don’t make it past the first few rows, has an appealingly dithery and emotionally conflicted quality as the Rabbit, particularly in response to the ardent overtures of the Cat (I told you this was a weird pantomime).
In the latter role, the animated, intense Nordstrum (even with a rather Hungarian-sounding accent) steals scene after scene with her characterization, body language and fine singing – and facial expressions that become a seamless extension of an expert makeup job.
It should also be said that Shaun McHale, as an endlessly scattered, compulsively chattering March Hare, is the other great scene-stealer of this cast.
Given the way the show is constructed, Alice comes across almost as a secondary character to the Fairy-Demon story arc, but Shogun sings well and handles dialogue confidently, in spite of a tendency to rush some lines.
Her Alice has charm, evident early on as she sings her ‘principal girl’ ballad, felicitously complemented by the singing and dancing of some of the ladies of the chorus.
A nod, here, to musical director Rebekah MacEwen, who has selected some very unusual music, coached singing well and provided excellent canned accompaniments – with the hand of regular contributor Tom Saunders well in evidence in The Wonderful Year We Fell In Love – and choreographer Rachael Carlson, who has done a good job of working with the varied abilities of the cast, including a highlight blacklight number.
Caelan Chen, in the key role of the Mad Hatter – while not quite as assured and seasoned a performer as the role demands – also shows promise and has his moments, particularly in a couple of scenes with Alice and his number ‘Mad about Hats’.
Deanna Vowles, while a little too quiet in spots, is droll as the mature, wise Caterpillar, who guides Alice on the road to self-realization.
Young players are also showcased in abundance. Keoni Rebeiro is amusing as the somnambulant Dormouse (who only springs to life at mention of cats); Emma Reid – as Alice’s pet cat Dinah – shows spirit and confidence in a role vastly expanded from Carroll’s original conception, while Myrah McLaughlin as the Jabberwocky, Emma Ockey as the Turtle and Ophelia Nordstrom (cute, as a young Alice) display assurance on stage far beyond their years.
Melanie Minty attacks the dual role of Alice’s hungry-for-status mother and Wonderland’s imperious Queen of Hearts with suitable relish, while Levi Arabsky makes an appropriately cowed husband to both incarnations, and Cecilia Peralta (at the performance I saw) plays Alice’s older sister and the prosecutor at Alice’s trial with flair.
Costuming (supervised by Amara Anderson) and set design and decoration by Andrea Olund – assisted by such scenic painting talents as Elizabeth Hollick and Patte Rust – also make a strong contribution to the psychedelia of this highly unusual Alice.