Over the years, in all of the descents into the land of enchantment that lies just beyond the looking glass, The Mad Hatter has had many faces — Johnny Depp, Ed Wynn, Edward Everett Horton, Martin Short, Anthony Newley, et al — but never that of a woman, until April 17, when the curtain rose at the Marquis Theatre on Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland.
And there she is, Miss America of 1998, Kate Shindle, looking spiffy in her tall top-hat and dazzling outfits, belting out lusty power ballads to beat the band. This is what's called thinking outside the box, or at least outside the rabbit hole — maybe, come to think of it, outside the city limits of the rabbit hole.
Make no mistake about it, Wildhorn is The Wiz of Wonderland in this radically reimagined visit to Lewis Carroll's wonderworld — a pop composer with the power and chutzpah to say, "Zap! The Cheshire Cat is a Latin cat named El Gato making Carlos Santana sounds. Zap! The Caterpiller is playing R&B on his hookah. Zap! The White Knight leads a boy band. Zap! The Queen of Hearts is a Broadway show queen with a penchant for 11 o'clock numbers."
There, evidently, are no rules in this Wonderland, so, in such a freefall of expression, Wildhorn can compose in whatever genre he likes. And he appears to like 'em all. What's wrong with that?, the composer must have wondered, arriving four floors above the Marquis for his festive opening-night party in the Broadway Ballroom.
Variety, he said, "is the whole idea. I grew up in the pop world where the mandate always was: 'Find something you love about every style of music. Don't be closed to anything. Stay open.' I try to be a student to that. I try to stay open as much as I can, from big band jazz to Latin — next year we're going to do Havana, which is going to be all Latin — from the Gothic of Dracula to country and Texas for Bonnie and Clyde to the gospel stuff we did on Civil War.
"It's all fun, it's all different colors," he insisted excitedly, and indeed his Broadway musical palate to date is Technicolor-hued. Freedom makes a guy absolutely fearless about picking his subject matter, as Wildhorn's past accomplishments demonstrate.
He's the only composer who can claim six original Broadway musicals in the past 16 years. He debuted with three songs that finished out the score of the late Henry Mancini for Victor/Victoria; from then on, it has been Wildhorn Concentrate, leaping from one literary classic to another: Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War, Dracula and now Wonderland.
Next, he said, is Bonnie and Clyde. "I can only tell you what my producers told me today: 'in the fall.'"
[flipbook] This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. He hasn't even mentioned Europe, but he will and did: "I have a lot of shows that play around the world that I specifically write for producers around the world that don't have anything to do with New York. The Count of Monte Cristo is in its fourth year in Switzerland. My Carmen is the biggest hit in the history of Prague — it's in its fourth year there. My show Rudolph [Hapsburg, not The Red-Nosed Reindeer], has been in Vienna for the last couple of years and tours Europe. Camille Claudel is in Japan and all over Europe. And I have a lot of shows in Asia that I've written original pieces for Japanese producers. I love writing for the world. Because of my pop background, it was never about a few blocks in a city. It was always about the world of stage."
Returning to the planet earth and the show at hand, Wonderland was all written within these borders, a co-production between the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Bay and the Alley Theatre in Houston. It has been a long, two-and-a-half year haul to Broadway, and two producers (Jay Harris and Sonny Everett) above the title did not live to see the day it finally landed, all furry and family-friendly, at the Marquis.
Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley, directed the piece and co-adapted the book with Jack Murphy — basically, a matter of maintaining logic and continuity between the songs. Theirs is a journey of self-empowerment rather than wide-eyed wonderment — just the ticket for teen girls who love Wicked.
Like Diana Ross in Sidney Lumet's leaden movie version of The Wiz, their Alice (played by a suitably strong-lunged Janet Dacal) is a grown-up, unhappy schoolteacher who stumbles into a frayed fantasyland as rag-tagged as the modern times she comes from. Forming around her in her tentative travels is a kind of Yellow-Brick-Road Gang, which consists of The White Knight (Darren Ritchie), The White Rabbit (Edward Staudenmayer), The Cheshire Cat (Jose Llana) and The Caterpillar (E. Clayton Cornelious). All heretofore were held to specialty-acts scenes; now they're a tagalong entourage.
Llana, who has really mastered the ear-to-ear grin of The Cheshire Cat and flashes it with insane ease throughout the production, wasn't quite sure why his character had a Spanish bent but figured ethnicity didn't matter since "it has to be the only role that was ever played by both Telly Savalas and Whoopi Goldberg."
A very funny fellow, Staudenmayer scampers about hither and yon as The White Rabbit, shouting, "I'm tardy" and "I'm not punctual" because Disney owns the copyright to "I'm late" (or so goes a joke in the show). Only now is the veteran comic just getting to Broadway — which, he was ragged, is what happens when you spend 16 years in Forbidden Broadway. He qualified it as his first sustained Main Stem appearance since he went on a few times for ailing Brooks Ashmanskas in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. "For all practical purposes, it's my Broadway bow."
Wildhorn wrote the introductory number for Cornelious' Caterpillar six times. "He wrote it specifically for my voice after he heard me singing, which was very flattering," the actor admitted. There are hints of Cab Calloway's "Hi-De-Ho" in the results, but Cornelious prefers to think he's doing a homage to Sammy Davis Jr.
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Tampa native Ritchie enjoys his White Knight jabs at Justin Timberlake but truly grooves to the flip side — the flawed husband Alice is thinking of divorcing — and the cherry on the sundae, he said, was his shot at playing Lewis Carroll himself (identified in the Playbill as The Victorian Gentleman, late-arriving like The Wizard). The world may not be ready for a redheaded, divorcing, working-mom Alice, Dacal conceded, but that was precisely what attracted her to the role. "I think that's what's so fascinating about our story," she said, "and it's wonderful for me to be a voice this way and have people connect to this story and to join this journey."
It's a vocal workout for her, to be sure. "Gosh, I don't know how many songs I sing. I think it's something like ten songs, but it's fun. His music is really interesting, and Frank's melodies just soar. It's really just a pleasure to sing his score every night."
Shindle, wearing some stunning diamond earrings that she borrowed for the opening-night party, seconded that sentiment with a doff of her mad hat.
Song-wise, she gets to sing two sides of The Mad Hatter: "Act I is sort of a jazz Hatter, and Act II is sort of a rock Hatter. The Hatter in a lot of ways represents what happens in your life when your dreams don't turn out the way want. It plays into your self-sabotage, your insecurity, your guilt, your self-doubt — all of those things.
"This show wasn't on my radar screen. It'd been developing for a while with someone else playing it, but they sorta re-conceived the role, and they called me last August and said, 'Kate, do you want to talk to us about this?' and I said yes because it seemed interesting, but I had a lot of questions about why The Mad Hatter was a female. "'Why is The Mad Hatter a female, above and beyond being a gimmick?' I asked them. What they told to me then and has continued to play out throughout the process was that The Hatter represented a very specific part of Alice. That's why."
It didn't stop there. "I did research on where does the phrase 'mad as a hatter' come from. It originated because hatters, because of the chemicals they used, were exposed to high levels of mercury and got crazy mercury poisoning. They'd shake and have hallucinations and vision problems. That kind of stuff is an actor's playground, but you don't want to be obnoxious about it and stand around the stage quivering. Y'know, how much is responsible research, and how much is showing off?"
As the somewhat daft and singularly unsinister Queen of Hearts, Karen Mason pretty much rules the roost and, literally, the show (although her crown rests uneasily, what with some cackle-free Margaret Hamilton menace arriving late and ascribed to The Mad Hatter). Mason's mantra is Broadway showtunes, and she knows — from experience — exactly what she to do with them — albeit, both of them.
"I've been with the show now for two years, and they've been working on these two numbers for a while," she said. "'Off With Their Heads' pretty much stayed the same, but 'Hail to the Queen' has changed so many times. In fact, I'd say about a week and a half ago I got the insert from The Music Man [a musical-theatre in-joke in the number]. They've been adding things, and we've been changing and growing to a point where I really like the queen now."
And the elaborate getups costume designer Susan Hilferty got up for her truly befit a queen. "I have two costumes in the show, and each one is a piece of art. I'm really lucky. Getting around in them is something else. My job as an actor is to make them look like they don't weigh anything, but they are heavy suckers — like 15 or 20 pounds!"
A Tony winner for Wicked and a Tony nominee for Into the Woods, Hilferty couldn't come better qualified for the assignment. "I've been working on this for two and a half years, so, for me, going down the rabbit hole with Alice has been an adventure," she confessed. "It has been revealing about the original story by Lewis Carroll. It has been revealing about our Alice, who is a woman in crisis. It has been revealing about the world that we live in. I think that the Alice in Wonderland story helps us to understand about ourselves, and that can be told in a trillion ways."
Many of the first-nighters seemed to be one degree of separation from Wildhorn. Conspicuously present were his eternal muse and ex-wife Linda Eder with sons Jake and Justin as well as his new girlfriend from the new "Pirates of the Carribean," Toni Busker. Also on his side: his Dracula (Tom Hewitt) and his once-and-future Bonnie Parker (Laura Osnes, currently Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes), his lyricists for Dracula (Don Black) and Victor/Victoria (Leslie Bricusse), his European stage director (Gabriel Barre) and his former music student (The Little Mermaid herself, Sierra Boggess, who has just signed up for a Master Class with Tyne Daly July 7 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre).
Also: Dave August of Naked Boys Singing, director Gary LaRosa, cabaret pianist Christopher Denny, Sister Act's Chester Gregory, actress-producer Tamara Tunie in a new 'do, Danny Flaherty of "Skins," In the Heights' Mandy Gonzalez and Eliseo Roman, Mary Poppins' Rozi Baker, Séance on a Wet Afternoon's Bailey Grey, a gaggle of Gerasimoviches (Ashley of Sister Act, Alexa of "All My Children" and Erin) and a list of Lists (Peyton of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," Spencer of "Fringe" and Phoenix of the "Rabbit Hole" film).
View highlights from the show: