Produced by Northwest Children’s Theater in Portland, Oregon, Ezra Weiss’ Alice in Wonderland is a cool little production designed to help children discover jazz. This musical telling of Lewis Carroll’s work features jazz luminaries like Shirley Nanette and Marilyn Keller along with a host of brilliant kids.
“Lewis Carroll’s text is really rich,” Weiss explains, “so we’re holding on to that as closely as possible and bringing it to life through the jazz aspects. The main thing is that the kids end up exposed to jazz in a fun way.”
Kids and adults alike will marvel at some of the pieces, with Weiss’ great compositions altering Carroll’s characters in all the right places. The Caterpillar, for instance, resembles Miles Davis and plays a trumpet. There are hints of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Shirley Horn, and other jazz legends sprinkled throughout the production, offering listeners a broad compilation of styles.
One of the real surprises here is the captivating Annabel Cantor as Alice. Her energy is contagious and her interaction with other players is splendid. Take her work on “Who Are You?” with Caterpillar, King of Hearts (Matt Loehrke), for instance. The communication between the two is lovely, as Caterpillar’s deep, salty tones offset Alice’s innocence terrifically.
19-year-old Athena Patterson proves a remarkable discovery, too, as she belts the living hell out of “The Duchess’ Blues.” The song is reminiscent of a B.B. King number, with muted trombone mimicking the “wahs” from the original text.
15-year-old Emily Bryan breathes life into the Cheshire Cat. Explaining that “we’re all mad here,” her Cheshire Cat lays out a bit of an Afro-Cuban vibe with Gillespie-esque flavour on “The Craziest Cat in Town.” Bryan’s inflection, tone, and wordplay are amazing.
A Shirley Horn-inspired number, “Three Little Sisters,” sparkles with the lush vocals of Nanette and Keller playing the heavy-eyed Dormouse.
Weiss’ Alice in Wonderland is a lot of fun. The production, highlighted by magnificent instrumentation and Carroll’s wonderful words, epitomizes the concept of “fun for the whole family” without the cheese of Disney.
Put this CD in on a drizzly Sunday afternoon and listen as these ageless characters come to life with the cleverness and enthusiasm of these gifted performers.