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  • Nate Adams

'Alice by Heart review: The Dio invites audiences to Wonderland in magical production


Photos are by Michele Anliker Photography

 

Halfway through The Dio’s “Alice by Heart,” the latest musical from “Spring Awakening” creators Duncan Sheik, and Steven Sater, it became evident how it was a perfect marriage of show and venue. “Alice By Heart” essentially gives the beloved Lewis Carroll children’s novel the “Peter and the Starcatcher” treatment wherein characters in the show mount a readers-theater interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland” with a limited number of resources at their disposal. It’s emblematic of The Dio because, not only do they continuously deliver great shows that are hardly produced outside of their Broadway runs, but they always manage to produce large productions with half the scope (and budget) of their professional counterparts. Kinda like the scrappy characters we see in the show. 

 

“Alice By Heart” is an interesting character study, one that deals with the shedding of adolescents through the complicated lens of Wonderland. Set in 1941, the show finds a young group of misfits seeking refuge on the outskirts of London in an underground station during the Blitz. Tensions are extremely high, and a growing sense of unease has rippled through, leaving folks uncertain about the future. Enter Alice (Alexa Huss) who offers the chance for everyone to immerse themselves into Carroll’s novel if only to prolong the inevitable. Her best friend, Alfred, is succumbing to tuberculosis and she believes acting out the novel will magically heal the dread happening around her and everyone else. At the very least, it’ll be a much needed distraction. 

 

When the overbearing nurse (Ash Moran - who also doubles as the Queen of Hearts) rips up Alice’s copy of “Alice in Wonderland,” she decides to recite the book from memory and director Steve DeBruyne, working with great set and lighting by Matt Tomich, stage a creative descent into the world of smoking caterpillars, mocking turtles, and devious felines as the entire ensemble tackle numerous roles where sometimes, as is the case in the trippy caterpillar musical number “Chillin’ The Regrets,” they must act as one cohesive unit. Again, a massive environment that DeBruyne and company have managed to mold within the Dio’s intimate setting. 

 

Throughout the production, we see characters continuously adjust their role depending on which part of the novel Alice is reciting. For Xaiver Sarabia, that means playing Dodgy in reality, and in Wonderland, transforming into a scene stealing portrayal of the boisterous Duchess in a delivery that’ll draw favorable comparison to Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus.” Elsewhere, Moran is sensational playing the Queen of Hearts in a vocal performance that almost saw The Dio’s roof shatter during the pivotal “Isn’t It a Trial?” where Alice is trying to keep her head. 

 

Other standouts include Huss, of course, who must navigate every step of the way, and she brings a warmth and earnest sense of discovery to Alice, who’s trying to make sense of her own fragile mental state while staying fearless in escaping into another; James Fischer and Lily Gecther are remarkable, and radiant immaculate vibes, playing the Caterpillar; Annabel Pulman’s Cheshire Car delivers plenty of sarcastic wit, Antonio Vettraino infuses the Mad Hatter with enough screwball energy to last a lifetime; Kolbe Pierzynowski has just the right cadence and stage presence playing both Alfred and White Rabbit. And rounding out the cast, Alexander Cousins, Anthony Pierzynowski, Maddie Ringveslki, and Kylie Scarpace are first rate playing everything from queens and kings to Jabberwocks. Talk about flexibility.

 

Their commitment to the various tasks assigned to them are what elevates the book’s disorganized elements, among them a severe lack of character development in the real world (Alfred is about the only one who is given a silver of personality) and the constant riddles and wordplay sporadically creates more confusion than clarity. But when this cast comes full circle under the music direction of Frank E. Pitts, conducting a lively 5-piece orchestra, “Alice by Heart” marches to the beat of its own drum. 


DeBruyne’s and Lauren Bryne-Dunn’s fluid choreography gives the ensemble all they can handle, especially during the aforementioned “Chillin’ The Regrets,” where everyone has to gently move in rhythm with the song’s relaxed tempo. That also means costume designer Norma Polk must creatively align both worlds in a way that allows actors to seamlessly transition on a moment's notice (which she does). Eileen Obradvoich is just as essential in the props department because characters need various pieces, including crutches, gas masks, and helmets, to bring the narrative to life. 


All these creative forces align to deliver a singular experience and at an intermission-less two hours with a delicious dinner served beforehand, The Dio’s “Alice by Heart” soars. It’s a show that, despite the wobbly dual-world narrative structure, is filled with wondrous imagination and creative intellect. A show that showcases the power and bond of friendship, where no matter how difficult the harsh realities of life can become, you don’t have to go down the rabbit hole alone. 


THE DIO’S production of ALICE BY HEART continues through May 12th. You can purchase tickets, which includes dinner and a non-alcoholic beverage, here.


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