Alice in Wonderland, Jr

Alice

By Philip Pearce

JUST OVER 150 years ago, the eccentric but lovable Oxford University don Charles Dodgson turned into Lewis Carroll and published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The anniversary has sparked a lot of renewed interest in his ever-popular children’s classic and its heroine. Media wise, Alice is a hot property these days.

Last year the London Library at St. Pancras mounted a major exhibit of documents, photographs, letters and memorabilia related to Alice, complete with testy directions to the next exhibition space (“Not that way, this way!”) from wall images of the haughty Queen of Hearts. Across the Thames, Britain’s National Theatre launched a musical called wonder.land, where a multi-racial Alice (Aly) topples into a lot of underground adventures not via a rabbit hole but through the  screen of her smart phone.

The show earned some oohs and aahs from the younger crowd at the Olivier; most of my age group felt puzzled by a plot based almost entirely on internet activity and accidents with familiar characters like The Cheshire Cat and The Mad Hatter as irrelevant walk-ons.

Back home on the Monterey Peninsula last weekend, I wondered if I would feel similarly bemused by a PacRep SODA stage performance of Alice in Wonderland Jr.

Like the Olivier piece, it starts with Alice in a school full of bossy headmistresses, sweaty junior athletes and snooty female cheerleaders. But my hopes rose and I felt like cheering when Alice followed a frantic passing White Rabbit (“I’m late! I’m late, for a very important date!”) into designer Patrick McEvoy’s excitingly convincing rabbit hole. The school characters morphed into familiar and delightful people I first met as a Menlo Park first grader. I sat back in my seat and felt happy.

An adapter with the appropriate name of David Simpatico has done a crafty job of injecting enough contemporary touches (the stuck-up cheerleaders become stuck-up flowers in a wonderland garden) into the familiar Lewis Carroll characters and events.  If I were an equal opportunity reviewer, I would return to the Golden Bough and compare and contrast the two casts who alternate in performances of the show.

But I can only say that in the version I saw on Saturday night, Genevieve Baldwin sang, danced and acted delightfully as Alice, and her bespectacled and slightly bossy non-Dodgson school pal named Mathilda was nicely characterized by Bailey Belleci Brewer.

Director Gracie Poletti has assembled and organized a large and talented cast. It’s impossible to mention more than a handful, but they all sing loud and tunefully and perform with spirited precision. I specially liked a Walrus and Carpenter (Abby Mornhinweg and Asher Lundy) who are under-rehearsed performers who need to be prompted in their lines and stage business by Kalina Wilford’s smug and sassy Cheshire Cat. There’s a wonderful Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, played by siblings Andrew and Lauren Mansour like a pair of roly-poly paper lanterns caught in a windstorm. There’s Victoria Bassanello as a bombastic Queen of Hearts batting small fuzzy hedgehogs through hoops in her crazy croquet match. And there is a huge and magnificent caterpillar consisting of a twisty line of coordinated athletic vertebrae headed by the tirelessly energetic Diego Castan, who brings down the house just before the intermission with his uproarious sing-a-long version of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Bryan Louiselle’s music seems to be a blend of original material and appropriately placed Disney old favorites. The Book follows a pattern emerging more and more often in the wake of full-length musicals which get adapted, abbreviated and clarified into “junior” versions, offering the gist of the original but in a form that sends parents and kids home in time for an early Sunday dinner or a not too late Saturday night bedtime. I was in my car heading happily home from Alice by 9 p.m.

It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, with matinees both Saturday and Sunday at 2, through April 24.