Monday, May 2, 2011

"Wonderland" and "Baby It's You!"

When I go to a show that turns out to be not very good the banter between me and my friends afterward can be extremely funny.  There is always a pregnant silence as we exit the theatre, mindful of the fact that someone may have enjoyed the performance, but once out on the street it becomes a battle of who can come up with the funniest derogatory remarks.  It's not that we are rejoicing in failure, far from it, in our own way we are emotionally recouping our investment at the disappoinment of having seen a show that does not work.  How bad the show is will set the tone for how much we rip it to shreds, and after a couple of torturous hours sitting in the theatre this can feel damn good!  And on this level "Wonderland" did not disappoint.

It sounded promising to me; a classic story in a fantastical setting, a Broadway composer known for tuneful melodies, and three extremely talented leading ladies.  And yet it all went so horribly wrong.  This reinvention of the story, if this sappy and convoluted book can be called a story, brings us Alice as a newly single mom who goes down the elevator shaft of her New York apartment building into Wonderland and meets up with the characters you might expect...except now the Cheshire Cat is El Gato, because...see, we're in New York and Alice is Latina.  Get it?  Wink-wink.  There is so much "wink-wink" in "Wonderland" it became impossible to take any part of the show seriously.  Act 1 became tedious in it's format of introducing a character, they sing a song, then they all go dancing off to meet the next character.  If you think that this sounds like "The Wiz" you are correct.  Someone actually said "I liked it better when it was called 'The Wiz'".  The songs are completely forgettable, and Frank Wildhorn, the composer, was not up to the task on this one.  We were not treated to even one of his soaring pop/theatre ballads, the type that made his ex-wife Linda Eder a star in "Jekyl & Hyde".  Janet Ducal as Alice does not have that type of soaring voice so I might have thought that the reason, but also in the cast are Kate Shindle as The Mad Hatter and Karen Mason as The Queen of Hearts, and they both have considerable voices.  All of them are saddled with material so banale that it is painful to watch.  At one point in the song "Off With Their Heads" poor Karen Mason actually has to say "It's BOOTYLICIOUS" and somehow have it make sense, but at that point, already late in the evening, "Wonderland" was completely lost to me. 

I don't know who the target audience for this show would be.  Certainly not literature lovers because everything one could love about the book is missing here.  People who like musicals in general will be put off by how derivative and hackneyed the music and story are.  Perhaps it is supposed to appeal to children, but this show's conceit of being an adults journey ultimately makes it unrelatable for kids.  With a top ticket price of $139.75 "Wonderland" is the most expensive ticket of the season.  We paid a significantly discounted price and I still had to keep my friends from leaving at the intermission.  I wish now that they had convinced me to leave with them.

I am not a fan of "jukebox" musicals.  I don't enjoy hearing music shoe-horned into a weak story just for the sake of being able to hear the songs performed live.  My favorite musicals have always been those with strong books whether serious or comical.  That said, if I have to go see a "jukebox" musical I like the ones that are based on real life people; "Jersey Boys", "Million Dollar Quartet", etc.  My expectations were low for "Baby It's You", which tells the story of Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who discovers and brings to stardom The Shirelles, and goes on to become a record producer and label owner, and unfortnately my expectations were met.  Even with a free ticket by Act 2 I couldn't wait for it to be over, and unlike "Wonderland" I felt that "Baby It's You" could have been a good show if it were in other hands.  First off if you're going to do a show about The Shirelles then can you please tell me a little about them?  Ok, I get that the focus of the book is Florence their agent, but seriously to go for almost 2 1/2 hours and not really tell me anything about those girls in the group seems weird.  This show is crammed full of great music, more than 38 songs are listed in the program, some of which are just snippets or one verse of a song, others reprises, but there is certainly no shortage of music.  One major thing that is lacking is a big musical climax in the show, perhaps a mini Shirelle's concert, even an extended medley of their songs performed by the four very talented young ladies that have been cast.  So many of the songs are fragmented that musically the show never really takes off, and even at the finale, when the Shirelles are supposed to be "in concert" we get saddled with a reunion scene between them and Florence that once again stops the music.  One particularly annoying idea that kept popping up all evening was when a song would be performed by the group, immediately afterward  Florence would come on stage and sing a slow version of it, in character, presumably to advace the plot.  It's a nice trick if you do it once and it actually means something, but most of the time the song had no relevance to what was going on in the story, so it just held up the momentum of the show.  Beth Leavel is a super talented lady who won a Tony for "The Drowsy Chaperone" a few years back, and here as Florence she looks strikingly like a young Valerie Harper in her period costumes and wigs, and while this script doesn't allow her the opportunity to make the audience feel much for her, Ms. Leavel is always interesting.  Unfortunately Geno Henderson who is cast in four different roles (many in the small cast take on multiple roles) does not diffentiate them clearly enough, so at times we do not know what character we are listening to.  If a good writer were to have had a hand in the formation of this script I think "Baby It's You" could have been something special.  Sadly, it is sub par and most likely will not remain on Broadway much longer.

Happy Theatre-going!

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