Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Alice by Heart
Spotlight Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Six: Teen Edition

Jay Schwab and Cast
Photo by Tiffany Elyse Photography
Alice by Heart, the pop musical written by the Spring Awakening team of composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist-bookwriter Steven Sater, along with co-bookwriter Jessie Nelson, frames Lewis Carroll's classic novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" against the backdrop of the Blitz of London during World War II. The musical is, at times, as convoluted and confusing as Carroll's famous book and takes that classic tale into a darker and more introspective territory, with mixed results. There are a few wonderful songs in the score but, unfortunately, it never rises to the emotional beauty of Spring Awakening. Spotlight Youth Theatre is presenting the local premiere of the musical and, fortunately, with skillful direction and superb choreography, their excellent cast of teens excels at breathing life into the underwritten characters and providing the musical with an emotional and quite moving ending.

Alice by Heart focuses on a group of strangers, many of whom suffer from psychological and physical trauma, who are taking shelter in an underground train station during the London bombing blitz of 1941. At the center of the plot is Alice Spencer, who has found her way to the shelter along with her only remaining possession, her treasured copy of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," and whose friend Alfred is suffering from tuberculosis. As a way to escape the horrors around her and to ensure Alfred stays awake and to hopefully bring him back to health, Alice begins to read out loud from the book as the individuals in the shelter become Carroll's familiar characters, including the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the Queen of Hearts.

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater won a Tony for their score for Spring Awakening, and Sater also won one for his book. Given the similarities between Alice by Heart and Spring Awakening in how they both use a nineteenth-century source to explore themes of coming of age, heartache, and heartbreak, comparisons between the two musicals are inevitable. The score for Alice by Heart is similarly moody and atmospheric to their Spring Awakening score. However, the songs here lack the vitality, drive, and emotional power and connection that made their previous work so impactful. Some of the melodies are quite soothing and moving, but many of the songs are fairly short and are over just when they are beginning to come alive, and the music doesn't always integrate seamlessly with the plot, leaving the story feeling musically disconnected from the score.

Also, where Spring Awakening benefits from sharp plotting and deep characters, Alice by Heart suffers from a vague narrative that fades in and out of reality, potentially alienating viewers with its non-linear storytelling. Its episodic structure makes the book difficult to follow at times, especially for those who aren't familiar with Carroll's novel and characters. We also know very little about Alice and Alfred, and virtually nothing about any of the other individuals in the shelter, making it difficult to invest emotionally in their stories.

Nevertheless, under Kenny Grossman's assured direction, the cast shines, particularly in the musical numbers, and manages to make the sum of their contributions offset many of the shortcomings in the musical. Jay Schwab portrays Alice with earnest vulnerability and serves as the heart of the musical. Schwab clearly evokes Alice's emotional depth, inner turmoil, and desperation as she journeys through Wonderland. The urgency she brings to Alice's plight to save her friend adds emotion to the plot and her voice is bright and clear on her songs. While the character of Alfred is thinly sketched and is basically only here to serve as a plot device, Eeshan Kumar instills the character with emotion and has a clear connection with Schwab as well as a warm singing voice.

The ensemble cast assume dual roles as both Alice's fellow refugees and the inhabitants of Wonderland with performances that are all uniformly strong. Alex Dwyer, Katerina Anderson, and Hope Estle have exceptional singing voices that soar and performances that are warm and clear. All three create unique characters and deliver some impressive high notes, sustained tones, and exceptional phrasing, with Anderson handling the majority of the solo vocals in the score with ease. Andrei Igdanes, Joey Garcia, and Shane Sedivy add several moments of levity to their musical numbers and scenes, while Sophia Mengel, Markus Rosendahl, Rowan Cross, Addi Lauder, Ava Case round out the cast with each providing assured performances and rich vocals under Elise Kurbat's crisp music direction.

Grossman makes good use of Rob Adams' period and detailed scenic design and stages the action of the scenes very effectively. Falin Taylor's intricate choreography is extremely impressive, with varied dance steps that are inventive and fun and combine with Grossman's direction, Samantha Utpadel's creative costumes, the period and imaginative hair and makeup design by Angel DeMichael, and Josh Hontz's fantastic and immersive lighting, to create numerous visually striking stage images.

Alice by Heart has its rough spots due to a lack of character development and stilted storytelling, but you can't blame Spotlight for the shortcomings in the script and score. With a strong cast, effective direction, and impressive technical aspects, Spotlight's production remains constantly entertaining with an ending that is quite impactful.

Alice by Heart runs through June 2, 2024, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-843-8318

Director: Kenny Grossman
Assistant Director: Laine Kenly
Music Direction: Elise W. Kurbat
Choreography: Falin Taylor
Scenic Design: Rob Adams
Costume Design: Samantha Utpadel
Hair and Makeup Design: Angel DeMichael Lighting and Sound Design: Josh Hontz
Properties: Vicki Grossman and Kenny Grossman

Alice Spencer/Alice: Jay Schwab
Alfred Hallam/White Rabbit/March Hare: Eeshan Kumar
Red Cross Nurse/Queen of Hearts: Alex Dwyer
Dr. Butridge/King of Hearts/Jabberwock/Mock Turtle: Andrei Igdanes
Tabatha/Cheshire Cat: Katerina Anderson
Harold Pudding/Mad Hatter/Knave of Spades/Mock Mock Turtle: Joey Garcia
Angus/Caterpillar/Knave of Hearts: Hope Estle
Dodgy/Duchess/Mock Mock Mock Turtle: Shane Sedivy
Clarissa/Queen of Diamonds/Mock Mock Mock Turtle: Sophia Mengel
Nigel/Dormouse/Knave of Clubs: Markus Rosendahl
Ensemble (Mock Turtles/Caterpillars/Jabberwocks/Cards): Rowan Cross, Addi Lauder, Ava Case