“Alice by Heart” Predicted 2020 (onward)

Alice by Heart is a tale of grief, the loss of innocence and adolescence, a girl and boy who shared a love for a children’s story and a love for each other. The backdrop? Violence, civil unrest, children in shelters, a quarantine due to a respiratory virus.

Alice and Alfred live in a shelter in London during the height of the bombings in WWII. They are determined to go through the story of Alice in Wonderland one last time before Alfred dies of tuberculosis. I urge people to listen to the cast album. The performances and the score are gorgeous.

You may not have seen it in its off-Broadway run, so we’ll break it down Track-by-Track:

1. “West of Words.” It wouldn’t be a Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater score if there weren’t strings and an acoustic guitar to kick off the show! Alice and Alfred try to make sense of their wartime surroundings with allusions to Alice In Wonderland.

2. “Down the Hole.” The first full-on escape song, very poppy, and it references the feelings of growing and shrinking and eating and drinking and all the various escapes that book Alice goes through, which are all metaphors for maladaptive coping skills. “What happens if I can’t get out of wonderland?” is asked, and it raises a good point. How do we get back to “normal” if normal isn’t worth going back to?

3. “Still” the music beautifully fits the idea of the song, with lots of pedal and sustained notes/chords to match the reluctance to move on in the story/with their lives.

4. “Chillin’ the Regrets.” The echo-y, drug induced caterpillar number, very guitar-centric, which is something Sheik is known for.

5. “The Key Is” the a cappella section of this section with moving and close harmonies in this song gets me every time.

6. “Those Long Eyes.” Or as I call it, the Gay Lobster number.

7. “Manage Your Flamingo.” A fun, uptempo number, that plays on the tension, before things feel all too real, even in Wonderland.

8. “Sick to Death of Alice-ness.” Besides the very solid trio of Wesley Taylor, Colton Ryan, and Zach Infante… “stop the analyzing of everything you’ve read…” Alfred is dying of tuberculosis, and he’s tired of running away, which Alice is pushing him to do.

9. “Brillig Braelig.” The Jabberwocky moment, and here we dive into the worse part of the trip where the reality of war and disease hit hard.

10. “Some Things Fall Away.” One of the most used phrases in this song is “there is no reason.” In a time like the one presented in the show and a time like now, where there is mass tragedy all around, looking for explanations, answers, solutions, all of that makes sense. But sometimes there’s not much any one person can do. So the Cheshire Cat tries to let Alice know that it’s ok to grieve but that this stuff happens whether we fight or accept it.

11. “Your Shell of Grief.” There’s a pit track in this show of Cello/Steel Drum and I think that’s wonderful. The “Mock Turtle” is a character embodied in the whole ensemble. The metaphor here is that in the real world, death is everywhere and it’s inevitable so the message is to just live in grief as your sole emotion.

12. “Another Room in Your Head.” This song is a beautiful examination of how to mourn and keep the memory of a loved one alive.

13. “Isn’t it a Trial?” the queen’s breakout number… mocking Alice for growing up. Musically, it is… exquisite, I need Grace McLean and Heath Saunders to know they are so good.

14. “Do You Think We Think You’re Alice?” In this reimagining of the classic story, the Wonderland characters don’t recognize Alice from the story because she’s not the Alice from the story, she’s a real person and she’s on trial because she doesn’t control their story.

15. “I’ve Shrunk Enough.” Rebellion is a healthy part of youth, and she’s taking control of her life by taking control of the story since she has no control over her real-world circumstances.

16. “Afternoon.” She says her last goodbyes but insists on finishing the story with him one last time.

17. “Winter Blooms.” The show’s resolution is that people live on through memory and there’s a cycle of life that is inevitable.

“West of Words,” “Down the Hole,” “The Key Is” are all songs that bring Alfred and Alice out of their circumstances and into Wonderland. “Still” is a song where the pair are determined to make the time stop and sit in a moment together forever. The characters are each paired with a counterpart or multiple counterparts from the fairytale, and Alfred is predominantly the White Rabbit, and he is the one who feels like he is running out of time. In reality, he is, while Alice is trying to hold onto him.

Some of the other familiar characters such as The Queen of Hearts (the nurse in real life), The Mad Hatter (a traumatized young soldier), The Dormouse (a scared child), The Caterpillar (a stoner), The Cheshire Cat, and more are found in this shelter.

The choreography (which garnered a great deal of attention and praise) had a level of closeness and excitement that will not be achievable for quite some time, but that makes it feel even more imaginative. In “Chillin the Regrets,” Alice gets high as a form of escapism, and while the main character playing the Caterpillar is one actor, the Cheshire Cat and the rest of the cast join in to make one big caterpillar (try saying that 3 times fast). “Those Long Eyes” had a same-gender pairing of dancers which isn’t common in the musical theatre or dance worlds, but is a testament to the idyllic and inclusive nature of Wonderland as a place.

“Isn’t it a Trial?” focuses more on Alice’s growing up and dealing with grown-up emotions like love and lust, but there are other grown-up emotions that she is being forced to face early because she is living in a time of crisis.

“Some Things Fall Away” and “Your Shell of Grief” are moving Alice through the stages of grief as she prepares to lose Alfred. Two of the breakout numbers, “Another Room in Your Head” and “Afternoon” are moments where the pair discuss grief and memory, and how facing tragedy as two young people is so hard, which is Sheik and Sater’s specialty. Even the last song, “Winter Blooms,” talks about memory. The final message is a suggestion that at the end of the day, we must remember people who we’ve lost, and storytelling is the best way to do that.

I saw Alice By Heart a few months into starting HRT. I saw it twice, in fact, finding it easy to put myself into the protagonist’s shoes of growing up and dealing with grief. But many others I noticed didn’t vibe with it much at the time. Maybe now that we’ve collectively experienced the destruction and chaos of 2020, we’re all ready to give it another listen. It doesn’t all make sense, but the world doesn’t all make sense either. When theatre returns, we will need to come out of this as a community, and we will need to use storytelling to honor our feelings and to honor the collective losses.

Wouldn’t we all like to escape into a fairytale like Alice in Wonderland in times like these?

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