Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's "Alice in Wonderland," which debuted in 2011, was the first story ballet commissioned by the Royal Ballet since 1995. There's a good reason for that: Creating an original evening-length work from scratch — much less one based on Lewis Carroll's challengingly multi-layered story — is an expensive and time-consuming proposition not to be lightly undertaken.
All the more reason to admire the result, which I saw for the second time as part of the Royal Opera House ballet on film series. My initial viewing convinced me this would become a modern classic; the repeat screening underscored what an epic achievement it represents.
There is simply not a wrong note in this entire production. From the Joby Talbot score, a remarkable blend of the avante garde and the traditional, to Bob Crowley's ingenious set and costume designs; from the innovative projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington that adeptly handle the more fantastical story elements, to Wheeldon's clever choreography and the stellar performances of a cast who make the characters leap to life, nothing is less than, as a Brit would say, "brilliant."
A "Wizard of Oz"-like prologue added by dramaturge Nicholas Wright, set in an Oxford courtyard in Carroll's era (1862), presages the familiar figures to come. Edward Watson is a twitchy Carroll (later, the White Rabbit), reading to his niece, the irrepressible Alice (Sarah Lamb), who is in turn distracted by the gardener's son (Frederico Bonelli, the future Knave of Hearts) and reprimanded by the comically severe Zenaida Yanowsky (foreshadowing her role as the demonic Queen of Hearts).
It's the perfect set up for Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole — handled with video of a floppy marionette spiraling down a tunnel alongside swirling cinematic leaves, letters and numbers — and the surreal start of Act II, set in a Sweeney Todd-esque butcher shop with a feuding Duchess (Philip Mosley in drag) and Cook (Kristin McNally).
That's just the tip. Add in a tap-dancing Mad Hatter (Steven McRae), a sexy, undulating Caterpillar (Eric Underwood) and an elusive Chesire Cat whose disembodied parts, wielded by black-garbed puppeteers, appear to miraculously assemble and break apart by way of ingenious lighting by Natasha Katz, and it's almost sensory overload.
Act III extends the imaginative mayhem, as Yanowsky, wheeled on stage in a huge wooden heart-shaped "dress," comically reinvents the Rose Adagio from "Sleeping Beauty," accepting tarts, rather than roses, from her inept flunkies. There are adorable Royal Ballet students in prickly hedgehog costumes sent rolling by dancers representing avian croquet mallets, each with a pecking flamingo head at the end of a serpentine arm. There's even a grand Busby Berkeley-like Viennese waltz of flowers that is appropriately over the top.
The final scene, set back in the prologue's courtyard but in the present day, has a tongue-in-cheek touch, with Bonelli (in jeans) and Lamb (in a sundress) asking a bystander (Watson) to snap their photo with a cell phone. A final rabbit-like nose scratch from Watson as he settles in with the book left behind by Alice brings us full circle to the beginning.
Sadly, there are no additional screenings planned and I can't speak for the DVD version, which features a different cast. If you chance it, at least make sure to invite yourself to the home of whichever of your friends has an enormous flatscreen TV; if you can't see it live at the Royal Opera House, this oversized "Alice" at least merits a big screen.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND, part of the Royal Opera House Ballet film series. Reviewed Nov. 19 at the Hollywood 20 in Sarasota. No additional screenings scheduled.