New York Times
January 8, 1981
Meryl Streep sings in 'Alice in Concert'
By Frank Rich
THERE is only one wonder in Elizabeth
Swados's musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll, ''Alice in Concert,'' and it goes
by the name of Meryl Streep. Maybe it's gratuitous to rave about this
amazing actress at this late date, but what else is there to do? Certainly
it's more fun to sing Miss Streep's praises than contemplate Miss Swados's
songs. Besides, one leaves the Public owing this star a considerable
debt. Imagine ''Alice'' without her, and it's hard to picture any show at
Dressed in blue overalls and a white
turtleneck, Miss Streep transforms herself into a dreamy Alice without any
notable help from Miss Swados. When the actress falls into the rabbit
hole, she seems to take leave of gravity - even though her undulating body never
actually takes leave of the floor. There's a lovely moment a bit later
when Miss Streep, waking from a nap, looks into a spotlight to brush her flowing
mane of hair. Her eyes are so dewy and her face so pure that she truly
appears to have been reborn as a young girl.
Nor does her fascinating display of
technique end there. During the course of the evening, Miss Streep is at
times a giggly nymphet, a spoiled brat and a lost, teary-eyed waif.
Eventually she adds other characters to her repertory while continuing to play
Alice. She's particularly touching as that bittersweet dowager, the White
Queen, and she's at her funniest impersonating Humpty Dumpty. By the
simple means of affecting a forlorn, basso profundo voice, Miss Streep can
create the wholly improbable illusion that she is fat.
There are other talented people involved
with ''Alice'' as well. Three members of the otherwise bland supporting
cast - Mark-Linn Baker, Richard Cox and Michael Jeter - offer witty
impersonations of Carroll's famous animals when they're given the chance.
Joseph Papp, who took over for Andrei Serban in previews, has staged the show as
spunkily as possible, and on occasion Graciela Daniele packs the cramped stage
with more giddy choreography than the circumstances merit. (The stage is
cramped because Miss Swados's musicians are unaccountably placed on a platform
that reduces the floor space by half.) Arden Fingerhut's lighting is, as
always, kaleidoscopic in its moods. In collaboration with Miss Daniele,
this designer transforms ''The Lobster Quadrille'' into the only number that
fully captures Carroll's delightful blend of whimsy and romance.
Unfortunately, there are 35 other numbers
that pretty much defy levitation. According to the program, Miss Swados
has worked on this score for seven years - and that may be the problem.
Ostensibly an adaptation of ''Alice in Wonderland'' and ''Through the Looking
Glass,'' this ''Alice'' has only the most tenuous connection with its source
material: a few lines and garbled incidents here, a few character names and
chapter titles there. Has Miss Swados spent so much time working over her
songs that she's forgotten the impulse that inspired them in the first
place? Just maybe. This vague evening summons up so little of the
letter or spirit of Carroll's nonsensical tales that you must bring copies of
the original texts to the Public just to follow what is going on.
You're not going to leave the theater
humming any melodies, either. Certainly Miss Swados has the right to
compose tuneless music, but one must question her refusal to match her score to
the dramatic material it's supposed to serve. Why does Alice grow tall to
a calypso beat? Why is the mad tea party an effete pastiche of a
country-western hoedown? Why is a song about the cheshire cat's smile
batted out angrily on household utensils? Why is ''Jabberwocky'' a
quasi-African-Oriental tribal ritual? In most cases the music mutilates
Carroll's fanciful inventions - or simply drowns them out. Yet Miss Swados
has failed to find a coherent point-of-view of her own that might fill the
More puzzling still, some of the music has
a hectoring tone, as if Miss Swados were writing again about teenage
runaways. Lewis Carroll is nothing if not funny, but there are no laughs
here beyond those provided by the antics of Miss Streep. The author's few
outright attempts at gag-making have little to do with ''Alice in Wonderland,''
but are instead showbiz-oriented references to a television cat food commercial,
the folk singer Joni Mitchell and Borscht Belt comics.
At least Miss Streep, God bless her,
insists on going her own merry way. Yet one still must wonder why she has
devoted so much energy to this show, dating back to its original workshop
presentation two years ago. Maybe, like Carroll's heroine, this actress
took a drink from a mysterious bottle labeled ''Drink Me'' and then, quite
unwittingly, lost her head.
Lewis Carroll to Music
ALICE IN CONCERT, a musical adaptation by Elizabeth Swados, based on Lewis
Caroll's ''Alice in Wonderland'' and ''Through The Looking Glass.'' Directed by
Joseph Papp; choreography by Graciela Daniele; conducted by Miss Swados; setting
by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting by Arden Fingerhut.
Presented by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.
With: Betty Aberlin, Stuart Baker-Bergen, Richard Cox, Sheila Dabney, Rodney
Hudson, Michael Jeter, Charles Lanyer, Mark Linn-Baker, Kathryn Morath, Amanda
Plummer, Deborah Rush, Meryl Streep.
Musicians: David Conrad, Carolyn Dutton, Judith Fleisher, Robert J. Magnuson,
David Sawyer, William Uttley, Tony Viscardo.