Sarah and Matt Cassidy are back at the Gladstone Theatre producing a British panto style show for the holiday season, one that is particularly relevant this year with the deep frost vortex from the north that has turned us all into living icicles. Written and directed by Ken MacDougall, the show has taken, as it did last year, a well-known young people’s story, transformed it into a tale best suited to Ottawa in winter and located it in a section of the city that allows local merchants to show off their stores, take part in the shenanigans and become a perfectly amusing background to this version of Alice down the Rabbit hole, where the frigid wonderland is not the one we were expecting.
Still, it had a lot of charm and the young people were giggling and thoroughly enjoying the whole thing. The show stars Alice (Jessica Vandenberg) who has to move to a new town, is worried about fitting in to her new surroundings, even wondering who she really is. Such worries are sure to connect with young children who are immediately attracted to this sweet young thing who shares their fears, their insecurity.
As Alice ponders all these serious questions, a white rabbit (Blanche) actually a serious scientist played by Emilie O’Brien, darts across her path and invites her to follow him/her into a magical land . At first Alice hesitates but she takes the plunge and quickly finds herself surrounded by the familiar Alice in Wonderland characters who are completely transformed by this new Winterland. The mad Hatter as a slick style-conscious fashionista, the Caterpillar becomes a hard hat steel-booted construction worker before a more important transformation takes place in Act II. The cool Cheshire cat is a Dj on a hip radio show and all are defined by the most attractive and amusing costumes designed by Lu-Anne Connell. . There is even an adorable little green elf who gets a lot of attention.
They all create great musical numbers, snappy dancing, (thanks to Vandenberg who was also the choreographer) along with the various modes of original music by Jonathan Evans, and arrangements melding Celine Dione, Ray Charles(Take the Road Jack – with new lyrics!), Cole Porter, , all sorts of familiar jazz, pop and classical themes into the music that melt into each other thanks to the work of pianist Wendy Berkelaar and performed with much spritely energy by the whole case, guided by Wendy on Keyboard accompanied by Pierre Huneault on drums, and Gabriel Leury on electric bass.
However, this is a British panto and the main stage convention of these shows is normally the “Dame”, a male actor playing an over the top female figure who provides all the flamboyant playful cross dressing fun and and wild creativity of the evening. That is where this show was disappointing.
Partly due to some weaknesses in the script, lines that kept repeating themselves until they were too “boring”, so a 6 year old told me quite plainly when it was over. The character seems to intervene too often, to the point of appearing to interfere with the movement of the show , all the while becoming downright tiresome. However, just as uncomfortable was the performance of Mark Allen as the “Dame” who obviously had to struggle with some silly lines that showed us clearly how playwright MacDougall and lyric writer Jonathan Evans were both fairly torn between a show for adults and a show for children and not quite finding the tone, in the case of the “dame”. The result, dame Mia seemed uneasy, forcing it all, and almost out of place in her flamboyant red wig, and her narcissistic antics. Perhaps the actor was not able to connect with his character as he might have but the writing certainly did not help.
As a result, the big star of the show turned out to be the evil Queen of Tarts , the magnificent Cara Pantalone in a shiny, flamboyant , glaring red ensemble that seemed to be on fire, a beautifully grotesque parody of the Helena Bonham -Carter version of the Red Queen in the film !!
Pantalone’s voice shifted easily from opera to music hall, showing all her great musical and dramatic possibilities . She was dynamite!! The character even captures the depths of her special personality that demands much attention on the part of the children who have to figure out what is bothering her. Deeply paranoiac because she feels all those little ones are going to steal her recipe for her famous tarts, she is suspicious of the whole neighbourhood and her reactions become the basis of the ethical lesson that underlies the show. Maybe the children love to boo at and tease the evil one but it is more important to stick together to help people solve their problems.
The show ends on a definite high note, especially after the actors all come back on stage to meet the audience and then the little ones have a field day touching the costumes, hugging the scary furry creatures, and having their pictures taken in this magical world on stage.
Alice in Winterland was a great success except for the unfortunate “dame” who did not really fit into the ensemble this time.
It plays at the Gladstone theatre until January 7, 2017. For tickets and information call 613-233-4523
Written and Directed by Ken MacDougall
Musical director Wendy Berkelaar
Original music : Johnathan Evans
Choreographer: Jessica Vandenberg
Costume designer: Lu-Anne Connell
Mia (the dame) Mark Allan
Selfi (the elfe) Declan Cassidy
Mad Hatter Chad Connell
Mr. Caterpillar Will Lamond
Blanche Emilie O,Brien
Queen of Tarts Cara Pantalone
Cheshire Shelley Simester
Alice Jessical Vandenberg
Director, keyboard, arrangements Wendy Berkelaar
Drums Pierre Huneault
Electric Bass Gabriel Leury
A Sarah and Matt Cassidy Production
One of the Jazzy inspirations for Alice in Winterland!!!