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Alice in Wonderland: Broadway Theatre Archive

After more than 100 years, Lewis Carroll's two books about the child Alice's adventures underground and through the looking-glass remain revered classics of nonsensical whimsy, virtuoso wordplay, and some of the most distinctive characters in Western literature. The books are far more than "children's literature," and their staying power from generation to generation speaks to the appeal of Carroll's lunatic genius creation. So of course people will adapt these tales to stage and screen for as long as those mediums exist. The earliest Alice movie flickered to life in 1903, and a high-profile version appeared on NBC in 1999. However, Carroll's work has proven resistant to mutation into other forms — the stories were created to be read, ideally aloud, and their outrageous characters, fly-away-hair structure, and sophisticated verbal games-playing are so inherently literary that they seem uncomfortable when yanked from their natural home. So a wholly satisfying stage or screen version of Alice's adventures has yet to appear, though heaven knows there sure have been plenty of attempts.

One of the more interesting popped up on television's Great Performances in 1983. Kate Burton played Alice, and her father, Richard, rode in as the White Knight. The "all-star ensemble cast" also includes Nathan Lane, Donald O'Connor, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, and other names and/or faces familiar to at least two generations of theater- and movie-goers. As a translation from page to screen, and as a production in its own right, this Alice is a mixed blessing. On the plus side we see artistic design and costumes ruthlessly faithful to the universally recognized original illustrations by John Tenniel. Then there's Donald O'Connor as the Mock Turtle (displaying the tics and charms that help keep Singin' in the Rain so wonderful); Trinidad-born Geoffrey Holder (Live and Let Die) and his silken-voiced Cheshire Cat; Dewhurst's Red Queen; Burton père's White Knight; plus characters and scenes — the Gryphon, Fish Footman, Dodo, the Mock Turtle's "Lobster Quadrille" and "Beautiful Soup," the Duchess and crying baby — commonly cut from assemblages of more familiar Alice icons such as the Mad Tea Party, the "Drink Me" bottle, a Stolen Tarts trial, mathematician Carroll's chessboard motif, the Tweedle twins, and H. Dumpty (all present here).

To the negative are a musical score setting Carroll's poems to tunes that were probably unmemorable in their day and creak dully now, Austin Pendleton's lifeless White Rabbit (!), and the worst offender — an artificial framing device. The action now begins backstage as an understudy for the title role (Kate Burton) is being told that she has to go on. Sitting at her dressing table and frantically puffing on a cigarette, she drifts off into her own fantasy that places the acting company in the Alice roles. A framing device should contribute to or comment on the material being framed. Here it's so off-putting and freakishly unnecessary that the intrusion starts this production on the wrong foot, and its closing moment is one of those "six impossible things" — the poem "Jabberwocky" rendered flat and colorless. In the middle realm of neither great nor grating, just there, are actors who are comfortable old shoes to the over-40 set — James Coco and Eve Arden as the King and Queen of Hearts; Kaye Ballard's Duchess; Andre (My Dinner With...) Gregory as the Mad Hatter; Fritz Weaver's suitably long-faced Caterpillar; and hoofers André De Shields and Alan Weeks as Tweedles Dum and Dee. Finally there's Ms. Burton. With her long blonde hair and pinafore she certainly looks the part, but she's bland and unconvincing, unable to make us forget that at 26 she's too old/mature/womanly to be telling us that she's just seven and a half. Especially after we've just seen her sucking on a Marlboro.

This particular stage production's history begins well before 1983. It originated more than 50 years earlier, as a 1932 attraction co-written by actress Eva Le Gallienne, who also directed it and played both the narrator and the White Queen. (Incidentally, she's delightful in Broadway Theatre Archive's 1977 The Royal Family.) A 1947 revival, where this production's music originated, played at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway and sported William Windom, Julie Harris, and Eli Wallach. Gallienne revived the '47 version on Broadway in 1982, a run that scored a disastrous 21 performances before closing. Kate Burton began her turn as Alice there, and in the following year that revival, further condensed, was adapted specially for television's Great Performances. It's that broadcast we see on this disc. While large swaths of its text are faithful to that found in the two Alice books, the script lifts chapters from both books, compresses them (sometimes cripplingly so), and re-shuffles them into a shapeless series of sketches. To its credit, the script preserves the essential unpleasantness of most of Carroll's characters, Alice included, and refuses to reduce the work to a syrupy, frenetic kids 'toon (Disney did that in '51, and NBC's '99 version worsened the trend).

Director Kirk Browning was usually masterful when recreating theatrical productions for television, as demonstrated on other Archive discs such as The Royal Family, Fifth of July, and The Time of Your Life. Here, however, his work is unremarkable. It's adequate for the task and entirely functional, but like the production itself it lacks that Carrollian spirit. Frankly, the show's just not fun, instead unfolding as little more than a spot-the-big-star contest. (Note that now Nathan Lane's Mouse is an early sighting of Broadway's biggest name almost 20 years hence.) The result is an awkward marriage of the show's stage origins, paper-mâché heads and all, and a studio-bound made-for-TV "event." Though it can't be helped, of course, the instances of televised special effects look particularly crude nowadays, adding one more area where this production hasn't aged well at all.

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This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD keeps up the high standards set by others in the BTA series. From beginning to end the imagery is very well preserved. Allowing for the natural lack of crispness in any TV print from '83, Alice's colors, contrast, and sharpness are all fine. The monaural Dolby 2.0 audio is likewise entirely up to the job. Everything sounds clear and clean (there's some barely audible audio ghosting on the original master noticeable in Chapter 20). The usual array of Archive support material is on hand. Stage/film bios detail Colleen Dewhurst, Fritz Weaver, and both Burtons. The informative slipsheet covers various incarnations of Carroll's masterwork, and it's all packaged in a series-matching keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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