At Onstage Atlanta, Deb Gerlach and John Forman take their own whack at Alice in a way that announces their new positions as the theater's new artistic director and producing director, respectively. Featuring a large cast, original music and a grown-up spin, Onstage Atlanta's ALICE: In Wonderland can be a feast of eye candy but with dull, flavorless stretches.
The first moments suggest the production's greatest strengths and drawbacks. On a set that resembles an oversized Punch and Judy stage, Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll (Neil James) stammers out a poem and Alice (Laura DuBé) follows the white rabbit down a hole. As Alice falls, the antiquated stage is entirely torn down and replaced with a central ring, and the audience's first two rows of seats, which are revealed to be on wheels, are physically moved to other corners of the space. It's very lively and creative, yet seems to go on forever.
Onstage Atlanta's ALICE is nothing if not a triumph of design, especially Phil Santora's clever sets, Chris Brown's puppets and effects and Adam Adams' colorful costumes, from the green, undulating caterpillar (Jamaal Wheaton) to the Mad Hatter's (Marc Cram) oversized, magenta headgear.
When Alice alternately shrinks and grows, trying to fit through a door, oversized and miniature props are switched out by black-clad figures. The table setting for the mad tea party never stands still, and in Act Two, doormat-sized carpet samples are tossed out to represent a chessboard pattern.
Neither Alice's Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking Glass has a strong conventional plot, and in the first act the well-known vignettes and conversations seem all too familiar. Long stretches, like the croquet game, the mock turtle scene or the trial over the tarts, drag out interminably, and too many cast members seem to have nothing to do but swan about the space.
Act Two switches from a loosely traditional treatment of Alice to a risqué modern one. Breaking through the looking glass, DuBé's girlish dress has been replaced by an undersized private school uniform revealing midriff and thigh: Alice becomes a hottie. The concept suggests that the "Wonderland" half is the fanciful innocence of childhood, while the "Looking-Glass" half hinges on the confusing temptations of post-adolescence.
At any rate, the play's back end has many more engaging sequences, such as DuBé's reciting of "Jabberwocky" to a jazzy beat, or Cram crooning "A Sittin' on a Gate" as the White Knight (whose costume suggests Mark Twain as an ice cream man). A hip-hop Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Jamaal Wheaton and George Deavours) rap "The Walrus and the Carpenter" to music laden with pop references. The final banquet scene takes place on the other side of a disco's velvet rope, and when the actors dance at the end, they effectively begin to blend the costumes of both acts.
The live garden flowers dress more like ladies of the evening, and all of the play's Queens are, inevitably, men in drag. The campy posing and declaiming of most players is pretty predictable, although Neil James' take on the White Queen as a breathy, pill-popping Marilyn Monroe (but with a hairy back) could not be expected. James also offers a vaudevillian turn as the quippy, heavily costumed Gryphon.
Gerlach and Forman unquestionably bring plenty of ingenuity to Onstage Atlanta's ALICE: In Wonderland. You can appreciate how much they draw from both of Carroll's books while wishing they'd edited down and speeded up much of the show. A little judicious cutting can be managed without shouting "Off with their heads!"
ALICE: in Wonderland plays through Dec. 30 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 172 14th St., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun. $18-$23. 404-733-5000.