Filled with odd characters and even more unusual twists on what we think of as reality, Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantasy “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is practically ready-made for the stage.
While there is gold to be mined in a straightforward adaptation — Annapolis Shakespeare Company reaffirmed that over the summer with its premiere of “Alice and the Book of Wonderland” — there is a lot to be said for a concept that takes a, um, curiouser approach and runs with it. That’s the case with the crisp and witty “Lookingglass Alice” now at Baltimore Center Stage.
This is not the same, almost acrobatic version unveiled by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 2005, adapted by David Catlin. But he signed on to this tweaked version, which includes a significantly reworked script and a more pronounced contemporary vibe.
The fresh spin is the result of several creative folks under the imaginative guidance of director Jeremy B. Cohen, among them production dramaturg Rebecca Adelsheim and notable hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris.
The result is less athletic than the original, but certainly propulsive (a bit of aerial stuff remains). It gets an extra boost not just from bursts of dancing, but the inspired addition of songs associated with the likes of Demi Lovato and Emeli Sande, given effective covers here by cast members. Music director Jose C. Simbulan ensures a kinetic pulse.
This staging preserves enough of the Carroll classic — the slip through the rabbit hole, the mad tea party, and more — while adding extra layers. From the outset, the title role was intended for an African-American actress (the excellent choice is Markita Prescott), making it clear that this Alice stands for a whole lot more than inquisitive Victorian girlhood.
Alice’s quest to find her inner queen, the primary focus here, is really about the value of perseverance and learning to overcome odds, some of the life-lessons she gleans amid the whimsy and zaniness of the topsy-turvey wonderland she enters.
As Adelsheim points out in her program note, this production puts the fantasy right smack into “our current political and cultural moment,” just as the buzz-generating 2018 Pirelli Calendar does with its all-black cast of models depicting characters from Carroll’s writings.
But “Lookingglass Alice” never takes on a polemical air. It’s still primarily an entertaining romp, as light as can be in its humor and thrust (the tea party scene may get a little too loose, but that’s a minor matter).
And you can’t be bored, not with so many visual kicks from Tim Mackabee’s set and David Burdick’s equally prismatic costumes, given nuanced enhancement by Rui Rita’s lighting and Caite Hevner’s projections.
Prescott captures Alice’s mix of surprise and determination to engaging effect. And she has great snap when calling out any suspicious behavior or unsatisfying answers.
The rest of cast is a buoyant bunch of gifted multi-taskers. Among his several roles, Christopher Ramirez does an especially colorful turn in drag as the White Queen (on opening night, he knew just how to milk the laugh from one of Alice’s innocent questions). Patrice Covington lights up the stage as a very regal, full-throated Red Queen and handles other assignments with aplomb.
Garrett Turner hops wholeheartedly into the role of White Rabbit, flinging dreadlocks with abandon. He’s even funnier as the ever-dashing, ever affirmation-seeking White Knight. The Humpty Dumpy scene gets a great lift from the smirky acting of David Darrow, who also slinks about deftly as the Cheshire Cat.
Center Stage planned this as a family show for the holidays. I imagine children will find the many antics quite fun, while adults will enjoy the wink-wink moments of humor.