Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland tells the story of Alice, but not the one you're familiar with. Played by West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis, Alice is a 40 year old divorcée, living in a block of flats with her daughter, Ellie.
Instead of falling down the rabbit hole, Wonderland is accessed via a broken lift, where mother, daughter and the doting next door neighbour, Jack, find themselves trapped inside. The only way to escape the other realm is through a journey of self-discovery and asserting who they truly want to be, which they're able to do after stepping through a magical looking glass.
Andrew Riley's set design is simple but effective, and is moved by the cast throughout – no stagehands in black are seen awkwardly shifting the hedges. With its slanted walls and doors, the real world seems more distorted and upside-down than Wonderland – perhaps reflective of Alice's turbulent lifestyle and torment from her ex-husband.
The musical features all the characters you'd expect to encounter: the White Rabbit, Caterpillar, Dormouse, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts. Kayi Ushe takes the role of the Caterpillar, giving the character a soulful jazzy twist and strong vocal range. The Queen of Hearts, played by Wendi Peters, has relatively little stage time but dominates the scenes she's in with fabulous characterisation and comic timing.
The Mad Hatter, played by the brilliant Natalie McQueen, is the owner of a hat factory and drives the narrative, with the story becoming as much about her as it is about Alice. After stepping through the looking glass, she's power hungry, wants to be queen and it becomes Alice's mission to prevent her from cutting off everyone's heads.
A highlight of the show is the musical number after Jack's looking glass transformation, when he changes from nervous wreck to a classic confident hero. He sings One Knight, a hilarious boy band-style song, complete with backing singers wearing beanies, sunglasses and low-cut vests, which leaves the audience in stitches.
A particularly strong duet by Alice and the Mad Hatter of This Is Who I Am shows off vocal talent and consolidates the musical's message of self-empowerment. Once escaping Wonderland, Alice and Jack become a couple, giving the audience their happy ending as the two of them and Ellie live happily ever after.
Wonderland is at Sunderland Empire until Saturday 4 February. For more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com