Impressions of wonder.land by Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris
I was invited to the Dress Rehearsal of wonder.land at the Theatre du Châtelet on Sunday June 5th, 2016 and as I waited in the train to go home, I jotted down my impressions.
Act 1 very impressive, a virtuosic mise en scène with gliding chairs and trains, Alice suspended from the ceiling, colourful video projections, outrageous costumes, snappy choreography, a really big show! The extrapolation of Alice as an Internet avatar left me somewhat dubious at the start, but by the end of Act 1, I was won over with wonder.land. And there were some pretty good tunes to boot! The overall performances were outstanding and the production was world class from start to finish.
Hal Fowler kicked things off as the MC and used his amazing vocal abilities to stretch his role into the voice behind the animated Cheshire Cat, in perhaps the most effectively staged scene of the night. Carly Bawden’s herky jerky automaton of the Avatar Alice was in tune with the mean Alice, Ms. Manxome played by Anna Francolini; fine singing from both led to their perfectly pitched duet “Me” to start off Act 2. I admire Anna’s versatile, rangy voice and her attendant and abundant skills as an actress. What I love about a singer in contemporary musical theater is the possibility to sing in a Pop voice and then switch over to a classically influenced vibrato when the dramatic situation calls for it. That’s what I call masterful!
The band of 12 musicians led by Kevin Amos included a string quartet, two keyboards, drum kit doubling percussion, two wind players (multiple instruments including saxes, flutes, clarinets), guitar and bass. The orchestrations and vocal arrangements of Mr. Albarn assisted by Tom Deering and David Shrubsole were tastefully put together; what a joy to hear live musicians in the theater!
Finally, the star of the night was Aly as played by newcomer Lois Chimimba, of Scottish and Malawian descent and whose role was identified via her mobile phone. Her Act 1 breakthrough when she reveals to her avatar her deepest secrets, including her father’s addiction to online gambling and her adolescent angst (she hates herself) pulled us into her emotionally and promised a strong payoff in Act 2, although it didn’t work out that way.
Somehow, Alice the Malice took over and the rest of the show was a test of who would rule the wonder.land roost followed by the rescue of the real world Aly by her friend Luke Laprel (played by Enyi Okoronkwo). The violence of the video game sequence was, in my eyes, gratuitous and not very funny, and the revenge “killings” of Aly’s allie Luke, especially in light of the Bataclan tragedy in Paris, and now the Pulse in Orlando, rang a bizarre note for me. What I was waiting for was the emotional arrival and fulfillment of Aly and her avatar; I really thought that that was in the offing!
But enough of my structural misgivings, I was privileged to witness a wonderful night of musical theater in the exceptionally talented hands of director Rufus Norris and librettist and lyricist Moira Buffini along with the composer Damon Albarn.