A low-pizzazz but enjoyable ‘Alice in Wonderland’ from Sandy Spring Theatre Group

Emerging and seasoned community theater performers tell the story of Alice and her journey down the rabbit hole.

Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production of Alice in Wonderland played over three weekends this August. Directed by Jacqueline Williams Rocco, and featuring a combination of adult and youth actors, the production was an enjoyable community theater journey into the realm of fantasy featuring the music of Janet Yates and Mark Friedman to tell the familiar story of Alice and her journey down the rabbit hole.

In the title role of Alice, young performer Carolyn Deol did an admirable and professional job, fully embodying the character through each of the many songs and scenes she performed. Other standout performers included Elizabeth Weiss in the role of the Mad Hatter, Meri Abramson as the Red Queen, and Kate Amburgey as the Cheshire Cat.

Kate Amburgey (Alice’s Mother), Rachel Schlaff (March Hare), Liz Weiss (Mad Hatter), Carolyn Deol (Alice), Trish Pisarra (Tweedle Dee), Dave Robinson (King of Hearts), and Deborah Solomon (Tweedle Dum) in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Photo by Joey Rushfield.

As the Mad Hatter, Weiss engaged the audience with vivid facial expressions enhanced by one of the show’s best costumes, a Mad Hatter ensemble by costume designers Justine Crimans and Elizabeth Weiss that gave off subtle Steampunk vibes. The show’s other standout costume was the Queen of Hearts ensemble, featuring a red wig and an imposing regal dress.

Perhaps it was due to the direction or to the freshness of the performers, four of whom were onstage for the first time, but the entire production felt very restrained. Even seasoned performers who I have seen shine in roles before gave constrained and limited performances in this production. It felt as if the performers were reluctant to use the totality of their bodies and voices. I would have loved to see the performers free themselves from the self-consciousness that seemed to permeate their performances, trust in themselves, and give the audience their all. This would mean employing their voices with greater confidence to reach the very last row of the audience, making increased eye contact with audience members, and using their bodies to the fullest with extended arms and confident rather than sheepish dance moves. Choreographer Hayley North gave the ensemble clever dance moves to accompany the songs, but they rarely felt fully fleshed out and inhabited. One performance in the show did stand out for its confidence and comfort, and that was Amburgey’s solo number “The Cheshire Cat.” Amburgey seemed very confident and comfortable in her own (cat) skin.

The production also suffered from its use of a prerecorded musical track. Small-budget productions cannot be faulted for working with limited resources, but I would have loved to hear a live piano accompaniment in this production. Adding live music, even a single musician, would have made the production feel much more alive and intimate.

FRONT ROW (kneeling): Rachel Schlaff (March Hare), Daphne Wheeler (Dormouse), Lisa MacPhee (Dodo Bird); SECOND ROW: John Rocco (White Rabbit), Liz Weiss (Mad Hatter), Carolyn Deol (Alice), Meri Abramson (Queen of Hearts); THIRD ROW: Trish Pisarra (Tweedle Dee), Ella Hebeisen (Mock Turtle), Deborah Solomon (Tweedle Dum) in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Photo by Joey Rushfield.

The set featured several clever designs including a lovely woodsy mural that filled the rear of the stage for most of the production, setting us clearly in the fantastical Wonderland. Designed by Tony Pisarra and Jerry Callistein and dressed by Trish and Tony Pisarra, set pieces included a cleverly repurposed bean bag on a stool that became a mushroom for the Caterpillar (played with humor by Dave Robinson) during the “I’m a Caterpillar” song. Lovely mushroom trellises and trees with white and red roses graced the stage during the scenes at the Queen of Hearts’ castle.

All in all, Alice in Wonderland was an enjoyable production that brought together emerging and seasoned community theater performers. In spite of the lack of pizzazz in some of the performances, this is the kind of valuable community theater experience that creates new generations of artists and theater art lovers. Bravo to all involved.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Alice in Wonderland played August 4 to 20, 2023, presented by Arts on the Green in partnership with Sandy Spring Theatre Group performing at The Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD.


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