Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   , ,

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.

Alice avec Alicia y Gaby. The Gladstone. Photo. Cecilia Moncaleano

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 with Alicia and Gaby..the perfect ending !
Photo: Cecilia Moncaleano

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!!!