A 'Wonderland' of Talented Kids and Richly Realized Fantasy

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 14, 2007

In this day and age, who can be bothered with tumbling down a rabbit hole?

Audiences at "Alex in Wonderland" -- the new kids-oriented dance musical written, directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen -- reach an exuberant fantasy world with much less hassle.

Now at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, "Alex" pays charmingly sassy tribute to iconic children's literature, including classic fairy tales and the madcap inventions of Lewis Carroll.

In the tradition of "Pepito's Story," "Brothers of the Knight" and other Allen musicals, a slew of talented young performers appears in "Alex in Wonderland" (which is sold out for the rest of the run; would-be patrons can check the box office for last-minute availability). Thirty-nine of these prodigies hail from the Washington area, and all of them, by the looks of it, could go toe-to-toe with Shirley Temple. These kids waltz, they break-dance, they do ballet, they leap in the air and land in splits. One memorable sequence features a tap-dancing throng in white rabbit costumes, like some long-eared, befurred edition of "42nd Street."

Supporting these prodigies are older performers cast in zany roles, such as Jean Claude (James Konicek), a big bad Wolf with a snooty French accent, and Miss Pippy (Jade Wheeler), a schoolteacher with purple hair. A brassy Fairy Godmother is typically portrayed by male actor Tracy Kennedy, but when he was ill for the Saturday matinee last weekend, Allen herself went on, making a splashy initial entrance on a red swing.

"Alex in Wonderland" tells of a skeptical schoolboy (terrific pint-size actor Kyle Jones) who thinks fairy tales are for sissies. After falling asleep in a library, he finds himself caught up in exotic adventures that parallel the escapades of Carroll's Alice (Audra Avery), but that also involve Red Riding Hood (Katherine Koegel) and other enchanted personalities. Allen's wisecracking script teems with contemporary slang and allusions. "Have you seen Beyonce or Tyra Banks?" an outraged Goldilocks (Chelsea Atkinson) asks Alex when he's surprised to find she's an African American with blond tresses.

The musical's highlight would have to be the hilarious scene featuring Rap Punzel (Christopher Brian Holland), a rappin' Jamaican with 16-foot dreadlocks. But the whole production is as irrepressible as the grin of a Cheshire cat.

The R&B- and pop-influenced music, by Allen and James Ingram, serves as a snazzy springboard for Allen's spirited choreography. Dan Covey's rainbow lighting, Timm Burrow's costumes and James Kronzer's simple set (a backdrop painted with huge books; movable elements like Rap Punzel's tower; etc.) conjure up a dreamscape in modernistic candy colors. Carroll fans will particularly appreciate this version of the Mad Hatter tea party, which recalls the original John Tenniel illustrations -- but as if he'd painted with liquid Skittles.

As Alice's acquaintance the Duchess famously quipped: Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it. The moral of "Alex in Wonderland" must be: Don't diss fairy tales.

After all, as Allen's Fairy Godmother notes, "When you say 'Once upon a time,' that's the beginning of the transformation . . . so you can open your mind to the possibility of the future."

Alex in Wonderland, written, directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen. Music and lyrics by Allen and James Ingram; musical direction and additional music, Diane Louie; arrangements, Ingram and Louie; vocal director/arranger, Terrence Lee Jones; sound design, Tony Angelini; properties artisan, Dreama Greaves. With Chloe Arnold, Latrina Bolger and Noah Robbins. About 75 minutes. Through April 15 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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