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Review:Wonderland at Sunderland Empire

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Bonkers White Rabbit Musical Deserves To Succeed!

Neil Eckersley presents
Sunderland Empire
Until Saturday 4th February 2017

Based very loosely on the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, Wonderland makes its English debut in Sunderland this week. A really strong cast present an engaging, yet totally bonkers story. The show has some rough edges but makes up for them with some real heart. The resultant tale is firmly positive about strong female identity and that is to be applauded.

The show opens in the grey real world. Recent divorcee Alice (Kerry Ellis) lives in a block of flats with her daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris). Alice is having a meltdown on her birthday as her former husband has announced that he is to remarry, her car is stolen making her late for work and she ends up getting sacked from her job. By contrast her daughter is mature and stable. Living below her is council worker Jack (Stephen Webb) who wishes Alice would acknowledge him.

Their world takes an unexpected turn when the White Rabbit (Dave Willetts) appears. First Ellie gives chase and finally Alice and Jack follow and they find themselves in the colourful Wonderland. Mayhem and chaos follow. The Queen of Hearts (Wendi Peters) wants to try and execute someone, but she wants to finish her tarts first. The Dormouse (Divine Cresswell) wants to sleep while Tweedle Dum (Benjamin McMillan) and Tweedle Dee (Benjamin Yates) strut their stuff around.

Where the show is clever is that the role of the Mad Hatter is given to the wonderful Natalie McQueen. She is aided by the March Hare (Ben Kerr). Meanwhile the Cheshire Cat (Dominic Owen) is given a stand-up comic type role bordering on the style of Russell Brand.

The early notices have mentioned the Frank Wildhorn’s music and Jack Murphy’s lyrics. It is true some songs stand up better than others, but that is often true in most musicals. The vocal talents of the cast really make the songs work. Natalie McQueen is superb in the opening number of act 2 I Will Prevail. She is joined by Kerry Ellis in the fab This Is Who I Am. In fact Kerry Ellis features in a number of delightful songs. Wendi Peters, Dave Willets, Kayi Ushe, Stephen Willetts and Dominic Owen all have the chance to show off their singing ability, backed by a very strong ensemble. We loved Stephen Webb is his boyband moments too. It is no Les Mis or Phantom but the music helps to let the story of the show flow. I’d even go as far as to say that my son was disappointed not to see a cast recording for sale on the merch stand afterwards.

The book by Gregory Boyd & Jack Murphy has been given a UK update by Robert Hudson. This results in references to Ofsted and the like.

It feels like the show will, if it is given a chance to grow and develop, become a popular one. Director Lotte Wakeham may still have some work to do to polish elements of this show further. However Andrew Riley’s set design and Nick Richings lighting design serve the show well.

We are big fans of live music and it is great to see 8 musicians creating the sound for the show. Musical Director Alex Parker ran a tight ship in the pit.

So we have a show in which Alice (and Jack and Ellie) find themselves – thanks to a journey to Wonderland. It is a family friendly show and running at 2 hours plus interval, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. A strong cast combine to make the show a delight which we really enjoyed.  It is a very pleasant way to start the year at the Sunderland Empire.

…and did we mention it was bonkers?

Review by Stephen Oliver

Music by Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics by Jack Murphy
Book by Jack Murphy & Gregory Boyd
UKadaptation Ava Eldred
Directed by Lotte Wakeham
Musical Supervision by Jason Howland                                                     
Choreography by Lucie Pankhurst
Set Design by Andrew Riley
Costume Design by Grace Smart
Lighting Design by Nick Richings

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Tickets: Tickets on sale now and available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022* or online at*
*Calls cost 7p per minute plus your standard network charge. Booking fees may apply to telephone and online bookings

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