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A bedazzled, sparkling drag queen Cheshire Cat. A Mad Hatter with a real set of pipes who gets down to “Everybody Dance Now.” A Red Queen and White Queen who resolve a rivalry by voguing in a Pose-style dance off.
This world-premiere Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto might—as its opening song suggests—cause Lewis Carroll to roll in his grave. Carroll lived and wrote in the Victorian era, but his timeless Alice has endured through each generation who invents her as an archetype. Who amongst us, children and adults alike, has not experienced the world as a strange and surreal place, full of both wonders and dangers? We all feel Alice-like at times.
Joining Alice’s journey
In People’s Light’s new musical panto, Alice (the talented Grace Ellis Solomon) is a middle-school kid who embodies uncertainty about both her present and future. Alice feels stuck between her divorced parents and is also starting a new school where she (correctly) predicts that she won’t fit in or know how to be cool. All around her is the spoken and unspoken pressure that she must succeed in middle school—in order to get into the right high school, then a good college, then have a well-earning career and a meaningful life. As a parent of teenagers, I can tell you that the portrayal of this cultural pressure nails what adolescents face today.
When a white rabbit appears on the first day of (already awful) middle school, it’s no wonder that Alice follows him through the library, down a rabbit hole, far away from the middle school cliques and deep into Wonderland.
The panto tradition brings us all along into Alice’s journey; we audience members get to cheer for Alice and the new friends she makes, boo at the villainous Queen of Hearts (the marvelous Mary Elizabeth Scallen), sing, clap, and even eat candy handed to us by the ensemble during the Mad Hatter’s (the amazing Alexis Tidwell) raucous tea party. It’s jubilant fun for all of the generations: the kids who were present were having a blast, but so were the many adults who came to the panto child-free.
A world of acceptance
Jennifer Childs’s script and Alex Bechtel’s music and lyrics reach just the right balance of silliness and irreverence, pop-culture references, and moments of real emotional depth. We want Alice not only to save the White Rabbit (the excellent Justin Jain) and escape the Queen of Hearts but also to learn that it’s okay to be uncertain. One of the show’s most poignant moments is the song “Impossible Things,” an intimate duet between Alice and her beautiful, glamorous, often absent Mom, AKA the White Queen (Altamiece Carolyn Cooper), when they finally come to a moment of understanding.
This outstanding production embodies the message that nothing is impossible with a gender-inclusive cast of excellent performers, led by the magical Eric Jaffe as the Cheshire Cat. Jaffe, who has a slew of Philly Drag Queen credits, also served as the show’s drag/gender representation consultant.
I saw this panto on the afternoon of November 20, which is Trans Day of Remembrance, and this year, sadly, a day that I was processing the mass shooting the night before at the LGBTQ Club Q in Colorado Springs. As the parent of a transgender child, I know intimately about the importance of representation for our kids and what a difference that gender acceptance can make in terms of mental health and wellbeing. Experiencing a jubilant, gender-inclusive production helped me to imagine what too often feels like the impossible: a world of acceptance, celebration, and love.
Energy, flair, and conversations
Every aspect of this production is impeccably done. The artists working behind the scenes to support the excellent acting ensemble have brought their A game to this Wonderland: Rebecca Kanach (costumes), Sapphira Cristal (wigs), Pi Queen (makeup), Mike Inwood (lights), Robert Kaplowitz (sound), and Chris Haig (scenic design). Kudos to director Bill Fennelly and music director Abdul Hamid Royal (who plays piano, accompanied by Jimmy Coleman on percussion).
Every member of the performing ensemble brings energy and flair but I do want to especially recognize People’s Light veteran Tom Teti, whose understated Dormouse is simply the perfect balance to Jaffe’s ebullient Cheshire Cat.
If I haven’t convinced you yet to make Alice in Wonderland part of your family (biological or chosen) holiday plans, consider the potential for important conversations that this panto can open up between parents, grands, kids, teens, and adult friends: when do you feel alone like Alice? Stuck in the middle? In your biggest dreams, what do you imagine is possible for your life?
What, When, Where
Alice in Wonderland. Book by Jennifer Childs, music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel; directed by Bill Fennelly. Through January 1, 2023, at People’s Light’s Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
Masks are required in the theater.
The theater is wheelchair-accessible; contact the box office with questions accessibility questions at (610) 644-3500.
People’s Light has a range of devices and support freely available to patrons, including audio devices and T-coil loops, fidgets, and noise-canceling headphones. On December 11 at 2pm, there will be ASL interpretation, audio description, and a sensory tour, and it will be a Relaxed Performance. Find out more on People’s Light’s accessibility page.
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