Monday, February 1, 2016

Alice In Wonderland—NW Children’s Theatre—NW Portland

A Scat For Cool Cats

This jazzy, musical updating of Lewis Carroll’s novel was conceived, composed and musical direction by Ezra Weiss and written, directed and choreographed by Sarah Jane Hardy (NWCT’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space in the NW Cultural Center, 1819 NW Everett St., through February 28th.  For more information, go to their site at www.nwcts.org or call 503-222-4480.

So, you think you know the story of Alice and her adventures down the rabbit hole.  Think again.  True, the original was written partly as a condemnation of the Queen, the government and the hoity-toity upper crust and their life styles.  “Say what you mean…” is a definite jab at them. (One could easily put our Congress in this boat, too.)  Also, “rabbit hole” has another connation, meaning, getting side-tracked on trivial issues.  But, all his flavor is still retained in this merry, madcap of mischievous marvels.

In fact, I’m sure Carroll would have approved, as the nonsense in his story and the freewheeling style of jazz and scat go hand-in-hand, like spam and strawberry jam.  And, if confronted by reality, these characters would only go as tourists, I’m sure.  For the stuffed shirts out there, loosen your ties, put on your sandals, let down your hair and, as Zorba (the Greek) would say, “Everybody needs a little madness” once in awhile!

The story is probably familiar to most of you, so I’ll just skim the surface.  Alice (Kai Tomizawa), the prim and proper, sees a White Rabbit (Sophie MacKay) escape down a hole and she goes tumbling after.  She almost immediately gets invited to play in a crochet match with the Queen of Hearts (Marilyn T. Keller).

So, she asks various individuals along the way for directions.  There is the very hip, trippy Cheshire Cat (Gerrin Mitchell), who only grins when confronted; a frighten, little Mouse (Aida Valentine), who hates cats; a bombastic Duchess (Ithica Tell), who has a pig for a child; a far-out Caterpillar (Kevin-Michael Moore), who speaks in riddles (seems to be the chief language of this Land—Riddlese).

Then she gets trapped in a Tea Party of nonsensical individuals (think about it in relation to this heated political climate) consisting of the whimsical, Mad Matter (John Ellingson); a chipper, March Hare (Leif Schmit); and a rather sleepy, Dormouse (Keller, again).  And when she gets there, finds a trembling trio of cards, Seven (Jimmie Herrod), Five (Ronni Lee) and Two (Annabel Cantor), who are “not playing with a full deck.”

The game commences, with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls and, surprise, surprise, the Queen wins.  But there is a deeper miscarriage of justice, as someone has stolen the Queen’s tarts and so a trial ensues.  I can’t tell you the outcome but even the band (Pete LaMalfa, Adam R. Jones, Tim Paxton, Thomas Barber, Noah Bernstein and Stan Bock) gets in, at times, on the action.

This is certainly one of the most uniformly talented ensembles I’ve seen!  And individual numbers are super, too, such as Tell’s revealing rendition of the “Duchess’ Blues;” Moore’s rhetorical rendering of “Who Are You?;” Valentine’s pitiful plight of “A Long and Sad Tail;” MacKay’s harried hasty relating of “Look At the Time;” Herrod’s schemingly scatty singing of “The Knave’s Letter;” Mitchell’s boastful belting of “The Craziest Cat in Town;” and Keller’s hauntingly heart-felt “Three Little Sisters.”

And one cannot forget Schmit as the timid, March Hare and, especially, the amazing Ellingson as the baffling buffoon in the Mad Hatter.  He has played many major roles in their plays and is always outstanding.  Tomizawa was exceptional in the title role in OCT’s “Junie B….” and shows that, again, she is a major star in the making. 

And, not to forget, “there are no small roles…” and so, it is true here, too.  The trio (Herrod, Lee and Cantor), who play at least four roles, prove their talent and are a major asset to the success of this show.  Also, to narrow it down a little more, Cantor appears to have a little something extra, a stage presence, a “diamond-in-the-rough” quality that, in time, hopefully, will see her in larger roles.

Hardy has her hands full, wearing so many hats in this play, but it exposes her talent in so many fields.  She, like the show, is an original and so, should take some well-deserved bows in all her incarnations.  Weiss certainly knows his jazz and it shows.  This is one that could evolve to bigger things, if Broadway is listening.  And the band is spot on and does not overpower the actors.  Mary Rochon’s costumes are marvelous, as they compliment, not only the character, but the actor, too.

I recommend this show (especially if you are a jazz lover).  But, be warned, parking can be a nightmare in this area of town, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.