Unlike, say, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Joe Iconis, or Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Duncan Sheik wasn’t a Broadway baby, weaned on musical theater—which makes Sheik’s facility as a composer of the form all the more remarkable. Having first made his name in indie pop, a genre that can encourage suffocating solipsism, Sheik has managed—more so than other, more famous singer/songwriters whose names have been splashed across Broadway marquees —to craft the kind of vivid, poignant melodies (and lyrics, sometimes) that accommodate more empathic, expansive storytelling, and to attract collaborators who can match and enhance their power.
None of those collaborators has forged a more enduring or fortuitous partnership than Steven Sater, lyricist and librettist for Spring Awakening and now for Sheik’s latest project, Alice By Heart, a darkly whimsical, utterly transporting musical that recalls Awakening both in its general focus—on anxious, pining youths who must pay the price for their elders’ folly—and the lush, often melancholy but exhilarating beauty of its score.
For the Alice of the title, Sheik, Sater and Waitress alumna Jessie Nelson, who contributed to Sater’s book and also directs, drew inspiration from Lewis Carroll, though their tale begins not on a river bank where a little girl falls asleep but in an underground shelter in 1941 London, where the first sounds we hear include bombs exploding. Inside, Alice Spencer—played by Nelson’s winsome daughter, Molly Gordon—is surrounded by other displaced youngsters in various states of denial, from a traumatized soldier to a girl in a party dress and a boy who keeps assuring himself, loudly, that a parent will soon be there to collect him.
Alice’s main concern is her old friend, Alfred, who lies apart from the others, dying of tuberculosis. Brushing aside the admonitions of a stern Red Cross nurse, Alice determines to buy him time by reading aloud a beloved book from their childhood. So fierce is her desperation that, in the blink of a production number—the bittersweet, defiantly yearning “Down the Hole”—she, and we, arrive in Wonderland, where the shelter’s inhabitants are reborn as various Carroll characters, at times reflecting their real-life quirks and predicaments.
The doomed Alfred, given a robust voice and a soulful sweetness by the boyishly handsome Colton Ryan, emerges as the White Rabbit, who is preoccupied with time, repeatedly insisting it is too late. The nurse materializes first as a crusty Magpie, then as an imperious, impervious Queen of Hearts, both parts imbued with gleaming wit by Grace McLean. Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, cast as a mischievous but wise and generous spirit in the shelter, also brings a playful beneficence to the Cheshire Cat, and to a conspirator of the sly Caterpillar (a groovy Heath Saunders) who offers Alice a mushroom-induced escape from her alternate reality.
The war is never far away: Gas masks figure in some of Paloma Young’s imaginative costumes, and the blare of air raid sirens abruptly interrupts a couple of musical numbers, sending Alice and the others stumbling back to the cruelty of the shelter—a bleak, grey netherworld, as designed by Edward Pierce—and their ravaged lives. The quarantined Alfred, determined to save Alice from sharing in his fate, reappears as a cranky March Hare, conspiring with the Mad Hatter (Wesley Taylor, scrumptiously snide) to drive the girl away.
But what’s blossoming between Alfred and Alice, as both are enabled to grow and thrive in the latter’s fantasy, cannot be thwarted by such guile. Heart channels the sudden and extreme physical changes undergone by Carroll’s Alice into a comical but poignant portrait of emergent womanhood. The blooming curves that make Alice an object of vitriolic envy for Noah Galvin’s hilariously barbed Duchess are not lost on Alfred, even in his withered state, or certainly on the White Rabbit, who’s a lot sexier here than he is in the source material. Ryan and Gordon, with her tremulous voice and ripely ingenuous presence, bring a tenderness and a simmering sensuality to haunting, glowing ballads such as “Still” and “Afternoon.”
For all of Alice by Heart‘s other moving elements, in fact—among them the fittingly dreamy, sinuous choreography, by Rick and Jeff Kuperman—it is the score, impeccably orchestrated by Sheik (with additional orchestrations by Simon Hale), that makes it transcendent, a term that can still be applied only occasionally to contemporary musicals, notwithstanding the resurgence in recent years. Catch it while you can, and prepare to be devastated, and uplifted.
Alice By Heart opened February 26, 2019, at the MCC Theater Space and runs through April 7. Tickets and information: mcctheater.org