Burrow into Wonderland for a musical journey of self-discovery
Jenny Lee explores Wonderland, a new take on the Lewis Carroll tales of Alice's adventures down the rabbit hole.
BILLED as a whole new adventure 'for the Alice in us all', Northern Ireland audiences are invited to visit the real and fantasy world of a grown-up Alice in a new musical.
Wonderland is an enchanting musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, where we meet Alice on her 40th birthday, struggling with the demands of modern day life as she lives on a housing estate with her teenage daughter Ellie.
It presents a "timely and touching story of love in all its forms in an adventurous exploration of who we are, who we want to be and the power of everyday magic in our lives", driven by the songs of Frank Wildhorn, writer of the Whitney Houston hit Where Do Broken Hearts Go? and This Is The Moment from his show Jekyll & Hyde.
The stellar cast includes Wendi Peters, best known for her portrayal of Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street, as Queen of Hearts and musical theatre star Dave Willetts, who rose to fame for playing the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, as White Rabbit. West End leading ladies Michelle Pentecost and Kerry Ellis, who has just recorded a new album with Queen guitarist Brian May, alternating in the role of Alice.
County Tyrone actor Ben Kerr, whose theatre credits include the West End production of The Rocky Horror Show, returns to the home stage for the first time since 2013, playing the role of March Hare.
I caught up with Frank and Wendi in Manchester during a preview of songs from the new musical, which makes it's Irish debut in Derry next week.
Already a success in Texas and Tokyo, the multi Grammy and Tony nominated Frank Wildhorn has worked with Robert Hudson is adapting and "re-imagining" the production for a UK and Irish audience.
Frank tells me how the idea for Wonderland began: "I have two sons and we used to live in a high-rise in New York City," he explains.
"There was an elevator which was constantly broken and I used to tell my kids that was the elevator that goes to Wonderland.
"I went from there and created a story taking these iconic characters we all known and giving them a modern-day twist.
"It's a mother-daughter story. Alice has grown up and would love to be a successful writer like JK Rowling, but as we rush about the real world gets in the way of your imagination.
"In this particular journey Alice has to rescue her own child and in doing so re-discovers the child within herself."
Mirroring Frank Wildhorn's own musical career, Wonderland's score contains many genres. "I'm a jazz player and my career started in the pop business. I used to run a division of Atlantic Records and have eight Broadway shows and 22 shows running around the world.
"I have lots of influences, from The Beatles, to musical theatre, jazz and soul which comes through in the musical vocabulary of Wonderland," he explains.
Wendi is delighted to be playing the Queen of Hearts.
"It's fun to play a 'baddie', but she is misunderstood. I have to find something within her to make people like her as well," says the actress, who describes her character as "a cross between Teresa May and TV's Hyacinth Bucket".
"As an actress who sings, it's a dream for songs to tell a story and have a beginning, middle and end. The Wonderland score is quirky and witty."
Her early introduction to the story and music of Alice in Wonderland came as a child doing ballet.
"I did the festivals when I was young and slim and Alice was one of my character dances," laughs Wendi, who confesses she has to nibble at three jam tarts per show.
:: Wonderland plays Derry's Millennium Forum from March 21 to 25 and Belfast's Grand Opera House from March 27 to April 1. Recommended for ages nine and over. Visit Millenniumforum.co.uk or GOH.co.uk for bookings.