Theater review: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ at Asheville Community Theatre

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: Bradshaw Call is the Mad Hatter, with Sadie Medlock as Alice in 'Alice in Wonderland' at Asheville Community Theatre, onstage through April 21. Photo by Studio Misha

Just in time for spring, Asheville Community Theatre offers an Alice in Wonderland that is whimsy on steroids. The show is onstage through Sunday, April 21.

Here are all of our iconic favorites: the White Rabbit (“Oh, my ears and whiskers”); the Cheshire Cat, whose grin lingers after his body disappears; the Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”); Tweedledum and Tweedledee; Humpty Dumpty, the inventor of the unbirthday present; the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the narcoleptic Dormouse, with their demented tea party; and on and on.

Even if you haven’t read the Lewis Carroll originals, they live in our cultural DNA. They’re brought to eccentric life by a cast of 25 that mixes veterans and youthful newcomers.

Sadie Medlock is a winsome, plucky Alice who pushes through the mirror over the family mantel to discover the topsy-turvy world behind it. This poised seventh-grader moves the meandering story along and never leaves the stage as Alice journeys through an enchanted forest where animals talk and chess pieces and card games come to life.

Director Candice Burchill, drama teacher at Brevard High School, sets her actors and herself some challenges. First, she uses the venerable (some would say stodgy) adaptation by the great British-born actress Eva Le Gallienne, assisted by Florida Friebus. That’s a lot of story and a lot of words, and sometimes both cast and audience succumb to word-weariness.

Also, Burchill has her actors speak in the accents of Victorian England. Some meet the challenge with gusto. Since so much of Carroll’s wit is verbal, a vocal coach could sharpen both accents and mush-mouths. Nevertheless, Burchill coaxes some vivid portrayals from her enthusiastic cast.

John Hall endows the Caterpillar with an elegant hauteur — and crisp diction — as he lounges on a mushroom, blowing bubbles out of a hookah. (He gives Alice the famous advice about which side of the mushroom can make her grow taller or smaller.) He later appears as the pedantic egghead Humpty Dumpty, who chops logic about words meaning what he chooses them to mean, nothing more, nothing less.

Bradshaw Call and Mark Jones, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, are a delightfully dotty double act instructing Alice on time’s vagaries and why they host a perpetual tea party.

Heather Rudzenski is a commanding Queen of Hearts. With an expressive face and confident physical comedy, she gives a nice contrast to all the verbal shenanigans. Her King of Hearts, Jack Heinen, is an engaging consort.

Kaiden Miller and Jacob Dickson as Tweedledum and Tweedledee turn “The Walrus and the Carpenter” into a high-spirited vaudeville song-and-dance routine. And is Robert Prevatt Jr.’s White Knight rapping when he sings Alice a song? More like these three, please.

The real stars of this Alice are the costume designer, Carina Lopez, and the scenic designer, Ben Harrison.

Taking her cues from the original Tenniel illustrations, the 1951 Disney animation, the 2010 Tim Burton film and photographs of Alice Liddell — Carroll’s real-life inspiration — Lopez dresses the Wonderland inhabitants in a harmonious cacophony of saturated colors, outrageous shapes and eye-popping patterns. (Look for all the variations of the chessboard motif.)

Harrison, a mural painter by profession, gives Lopez’s dazzling costumes the perfect background: a muted pastel world of giant toadstools and flowers.

ACT’s Alice in Wonderland doesn’t seek the deeper coming-of-age layers that literary detectives find in Carroll’s books, but Burchill, the director, clearly embraces the author’s view: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense.” Like all great children’s classics, it’s wise nonsense for audiences of all ages.

WHAT: Alice in Wonderland
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, April 21. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $12-$26

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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