My Variety Review: Musical 'Alice By Heart'

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Creatives from every discipline have tried to make Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale “Alice in Wonderland” their own, only to find themselves falling down an artistic rabbit hole. The new interpretation now inaugurating a spiffy new home for Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, “Alice by Heart,” also joins the ranks of adaptations that have gotten tangled up in the details of nonsense, despite some dreamy melodies (from “Spring Awakening” Tony winners Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), clever staging and a welcome emotional arc for the title character.

Set in 1941 in a London Underground station, a group of young people and misfits find refuge during the Blitz. But it might as well be an insane asylum, because everyone there is traumatized in the extreme, including the adult caregivers. The conceit of layering madness on madness, while intriguing at first, becomes tiresome, as the players enter and exit Wonderland in the production’s wobbly double-narrative.

At least this Alice (Molly Gordon) is less annoying than in other versions. For this coming-of-age take, she is presented as a pre-adolescent showing substantial growth, both physically and emotionally, as she learns to leave childhood behind in order to enter a less innocent world filled with grim realities and tragic losses.

Making it a kind of “Spring Awakening” for this Alice would seem like a perfect fit composer Sheik and lyricist Sater, who with Jessie Nelson (“Waitress”) co-wrote this book. And here Sheik’s best melodies — like “Afternoon,” “West of Word” and “Still” — have that haunting ache of young dreamers.

But the twin tales are burdened with so many symbols, riddles, wordplay and metaphors that it all ends up more exhausting than invigorating. Worse yet, it’s just no fun, even when things get curiouser and curiouser.