Stage: Wednesday, July 25, 2002
Cheshire Grins

Jubilee Theatre’s new original, Alice Wonder, is a hilarious urban fairy tale.


A hundred and fifty years ago, Lewis Carroll wrote the Alice books,” announced Jubilee Theatre artistic director Rudy Eastman before a performance of the theater’s latest original musical, Alice Wonder. “What you’re about to see ain’t nuthin’ like that.”

He was being playful, of course. Countless scholars, of both the degreed and armchair varieties, have seized Carroll’s paean to his bored young 19th-century charge and used it as a template for everything from mathematics to the psychology of pedophilia. Writer-director Eastman and composer-musical director Joe Rogers have simply fallen into a long line of zealous interpreters by cooking up their own variation, throwing in allusions to other children’s stories as well. In the case of Alice Wonder, the lushly talented cast of 14 performers isn’t scurrying around Jubilee’s tiny stage hunting for subtexts. Carroll might not recognize his tale of exquisitely orchestrated nonsense as it plays out in Fort Worth, but that’s not because Jubilee has unearthed any radical new meanings or even messed much with the basics. They have turned the Alice saga into a revue of black American musical genres, from gospel to hip-hop, which celebrates, satirizes, and once or twice even lightly criticizes the contemporary big-city African-American community. What’s fairly predictable and sometimes unsubtle in theory (how far a leap is it from Humpty Dumpty to an egg-shaped rap artist named Hump D?) is frequently hilarious, poignant, and passionate in the delivery. As with Carroll’s original blonde Alice, you’d do best not to try and string a coherent narrative out of the new assault of characters and situations — plot has never been a strength of Jubilee Theatre’s original shows. Just sit back and let the play envelop you like a (chemical-free) hallucination. And like most stimulants, the sometimes bawdy Alice Wonder is definitely recommended for adults only.

Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton is the eponymous character, a veritable female Job encountering all at once the worst that life can offer. Her husband’s dumped her, her son’s gone to jail, the IRS is preparing to audit her, and, maybe worst of all, rumors that she’s messing around with the pastor’s young son torment her. After chasing what she thinks is a rat off her porch, Alice tumbles down an open manhole and lands in a graffiti-sprayed, ominously lit Wonderland. In much the same way that she can find no center of peace, no respite from the chaotic voices that plague her aboveground, Alice can’t understand or escape the conflicting advice and instructions on how to find the exit sign in this subterranean insane asylum.

With Joe Rogers conducting Jubilee’s venerable, stylistically flexible live band behind the black curtain, a frustrated Alice uses super-cool tour guide Cat Daddy (Robert Rouse, effortlessly charming as always) to help tangle with types vaguely familiar to her and us. They’ve been outfitted by resident costumer Cricket Pettigrew, and she seems to have enjoyed a budget increase — the spangles and sequins and animal patterns are tacky-chic and among the best ever paraded across a Jubilee stage. We meet them all: twin sisters She Dee Dee (Crystal Phillips) and She Day Day (Ebony Marshall), replete with cell phones, hair weaves, and one stock phrase to express perpetual amazement (“Fuh real, doh”); the aforementioned, chain-wearing Notorious Hump D (Steven Griffin), who manages some suave, minimalist hip-hop moves in his awkward eggshell; Rasta Blue (Marcellous Hayes), who tokes Alice up to the shuffling reggae of “Come Fly”; and, of course, the Queen of Hearts (an imperiously funny Keron L. Jackson), a drag queen with a red feather boa who intones “Lethal injection!” whenever she wants to be rid of an annoying courtier. The show’s real standout character may be Sister Dukes (Eleanor Threatt), a “pillar” of Wonderland’s church community who speaks only in biblical quotations. Sporting a floral hat huge enough to snap her neck and mid-calf panty hose, Threatt is delightfully smug in her spirituality. “He Gave To Me (The Right to Be Righteous)” serves as her musical warning that she’s more than happy to cast the first stone.

One note of caution, both to ticket buyers and Jubilee Theatre’s producers: Alice Wonder clocks in at around two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, and that’s simply too long for a collection of songs and characters as loose and frothy as these. The cast earned the raucous standing ovation delivered at the matinee I attended, but still, you get the feeling that, musically speaking, Jubilee’s singers and instrumentalists are almost too talented for their own good.

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