As the 200-plus elementary students from the Normandy School District filed into the Grandel Theater to catch a morning matinee, I couldn’t help but wonder how these children would connect with Metro Theater Company’s staging of Rachel Rockwell and Michael Mahler’s “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure.”
The playbill cover’s illustration of a little black girl with long braids strumming a guitar was cute. But would director Jamie McKittrick and musical director Lamar Harris be able to give these children – who have been raised almost exclusively on hip-hop – a stage experience that would resonate?
Midway into the opening musical sequence the answer was crystal clear. As the supporting players laid out the turn of events that were about to unfold in a medley, the students got so into music they were clapping along to the beat. The unified chorus of hands felt as if it was another instrument within the rock band.
But when Sankofa B. Soleil scooted across the stage as Alice, followed by her onstage sister Alicia Reve Like, there was an audible gasp. The entire group leaned forward in their seats to get a closer look at the women. The simple, instinctive gestures were an illustration of the power of representation. These women looked like them. Seeing a reflection of themselves made the students all the more eager to engage with the story unfolding on stage.
With “Wonderland,” – which is geared towards young audiences – McKittrick, Harris, the band and ensemble of players present an exciting production that is musical theater anarchy in the best way imaginable. It’s billed as a rock show, but in its defiance of the traditional roles and norms of musicals, punk rock would be more of a proper description of this production.
The artistic defiance becomes apparent when Soleil emerges as Alice. Instead of a shiny, synthetic wig, she comes onstage with her natural cropped fade – and without a hint of the standard layers of stage makeup that accompany the hair and make the actor portraying the character barely recognizable. Bare face, short hair and a nose ring, Soleil is the last Alice anyone who grew up on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s fantasy. Despite countless variations over the past 150-plus years, a dainty blonde Alice in her white stockings is what instantly comes to mind.
For “Wonderland” Alice has combat boots instead of shiny patent leather – and her dress is transformed into a denim romper for the life-altering trip (literally and figuratively) she embarks on over the course of the 85-minute production.
“Wonderland” is a story of self-acceptance and selflessness and embracing the journey while in the moment. “You can’t subtract the past and add the future if the answer is the present,” the Cheshire Cat (played by Patrick Blindauer) tells Alice. Another compelling scene within “Wonderland” happens when it is revealed that the red roses were really white roses who went through the painstaking process of dyeing themselves to please the queen. There are also lessons of the true meaning of leadership that Alice learns by witnessing what happens when authority is abused.
With an electric guitar strapped to her back, Alice maneuvers her way through the mystical “Wonderland” by trusting her instincts, administering the lessons that she didn’t know were preparing her for life and conquering her fears.
As the play carries on, the rule-breaking continues. Band members who transition themselves in and out of the play by hopping down from their station to take part in the show. It is billed as a “Rock & Roll Adventure,” but Harris liberally incorporates elements of soul, R&B, house, funk and hip-hop into the score.
Diversity and inclusion also seemed to be top of mind for the production with respect to both race and gender norms. When Omega Jones, a male, emerges as the “The Red Queen” after nearly an hour of singing counter tenor – he brilliantly captured the essence of the role by presenting a true diva. With his bright red fire crown and matching lipstick, he was an instant favorite of the young audience.
The students danced in their seats after the music was over as they waited to be ushered to their buses.
Their connection to the play – and the music reminded me of the words Sacha Jenkins of the band 1865 used to describe his experience as part of the punk rock scene.
“When you are black, you are punk rock all the time,” Jenkins said. “Not only is rock and roll native to people myself, it’s almost like my birthright.”
Metro Theater Company’s presentation of “Wonderland” Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure” continues through December 30 at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. For more information, visit www.metroplays.org or call (314) 932-7414.