La Scena Musicale

Monday, 7 July 2014

Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Story by Lewis Carroll
Adaptation for the stage by James Reaney

Director: Jillian Kelley
Choreographer: Dayna Tekatch
Designer: Bretta Gerecke
Composer: Jonathan Munro
Sound Designer: John Gzowski

Alice: Trish Lindström
Red Queen: Cynthia Dale
White Queen: Sarah Orenstein
Humpty Dumpty: Brian Tree

Stratford Festival 
Avon Theatre
June 21, 2014

It is one of the great mysteries of genius how a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics professor came to create the most enchanting children’s books in the history of the genre; not only that, but how these same stories about a young girl and her adventures with a vast panoply of absurd characters are so intellectually clever as to continue to challenge great minds more than 150 years after they were written! The “Alice” stories not only turned out to be imaginative and compelling, but also philosophical textbooks that found new ways to frame the basic questions about our very existence.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (photo: right) spent most of his life teaching at Christ Church College, Oxford, but he found time to write both Alice and Wonderland (1850s) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Apparently, his inspiration was the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. Liddell had three children, all girls: Lorina, Edith and Alice. It appears that Dodgson was particularly attracted to 11-year-old Alice. Not only did ‘Alice’ become the heroine of the two books, but rumor has it that Dodgson even planned to marry her.

The Stratford Festival is best known for its Shakespeare productions, but it has always offered a full range of plays and musicals or operettas. Year after year, its seasons mix plays from different centuries and from many different genres. To be so consistently successful in all these ventures requires imaginative and capable leadership – Antoni Cimolino at the moment – and a strong company of actors, singers, dancers and technicians. Alice Through the Looking Glass was a fine example of a company production. The Reaney adaptation was a huge success in 1994 and twenty years later it is still an impressive achievement. The new production, directed by Jillian Kelley in her Stratford debut is wonderfully entertaining, and not only for children.

James Reaney (1979)
It is difficult to praise too highly what the late James Reaney did, to bring Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic to the stage. For a start, he was faithful to the original material in the sense that he closely followed Carroll’s story, resisted the temptation to bring in material from the earlier and more popular Alice in Wonderland, and did not attempt to add his own thoughts about the material, the characters or the author. Reaney understood that Alice Through the Looking-Glass is quite strong enough on its own, with its clever story line and original characters.

Then it was up to the director and her team to breathe life into the play. Kelley and her colleagues get it right in one scene after another.

Lewis Carroll was especially clever in using the game of chess as a metaphor for Alice’s coming of age. The rules of chess work as the unseen and little understood actions of invisible forces moving individuals through life. Many of the leading characters in Alice Through the Looking Glass are chess pieces come to life; among them are the Red and White Kings and Queens, and the Red and White Knights. Early on Alice gets what it’s all about:

It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world – if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should like to be a Queen best.

Trish Lindström
And so it goes. Alice does become a Queen. Trish Lindström as Alice was wide-eyed and likeable, and a whole host of Stratford stalwarts popped in and out throughout the show. It was luxury casting with Cynthia Dale, no less, as the Red Queen and Tom McCamus as the March Hare. Brian Tree, in his 25th Stratford season, almost stole the show as Humpty Dumpty, pontificating magnificently from atop his enormous egg body with assistants working his floppy arms.

Mike Nadajewski and Sanjay Talwar deserve special kudos for their well-drilled and funny Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The costumes added immensely to the success of this scene and to most others. Bretta Gerecke was the wizard at work here, aided by choreographer Dayna Tekatch.

And did I mention audience involvement? Children running up and down the aisles are usually the bane of an actor’s existence - not so on this occasion; here, they were positively encouraged to be off and running when jelly beans starting falling from the sky, and from the actors on stage.

Music was used sparingly in this show but always seemed just right. Jonathan Monro composed the music and recorded it too, using only keyboards. While the music was vaguely contemporary, it was never at odds with the period style of the play, nor did it ever fall back on all too familiar nursery rhyme versions of the songs.

The good news from Stratford is that at least one of the ‘Alice’ stories is as fresh and timeless as ever. If you enjoyed it as a child, come to the festival this summer and bring your kids. They’ll fall in love with it too, and you yourself will have another chance to ponder the great existential questions raised with incomparable cleverness and imagination so long ago by that shy Oxford mathematics professor.

For something more…

If your copies of the Alice fantasies are by now too dog-eared to pass muster, look no further than the internet. Free replacements are readily available at

Since 1969, American composer David Del Tredici has spent much of his time writing pieces that are Alice-related, and many of them are superb. Del Tredici often sets Carroll’s text to music but he also probes deeply into the layers of meaning, the real character of Alice and the relationship between Alice and the author. In addition, he fully enters into the spirit of the word games, and creates a few of his own. To learn more about this wonderful music visit the composer’s website at

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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