While many theatres have to rely on staging juke box-style musicals with often silly and predictable storylines written around a handful of 60s, 70s or 80s pop hits, this week Milton Keynes Theatre treats us to Wonderland, a brand new musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass... and it's a cracker!
I'm delighted when I get the chance to watch a new musical, especially if it's a big budget production boasting a first rate cast with songs written specifically for it.
Wonderland, and the trip down the rabbit hole, becomes that sparkling new show courtesy of Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy. It's not only refreshing, but is an updated version of the familiar children's story which could almost double as a pantomime.
We start with Alice, the divorced mother of a teenage daughter. She's a former teacher still recovering from the shock of being left on her own who then gets sacked from her travel agent job for being late after her car is stolen… while things simply go from bad to worse!
Living in a high-rise flat, her self-esteem is seemingly at an all-time low, the break-up has left her in pieces yet she craves happiness through her books. “I don’t want to live in the real world,” she exclaims.
But her escape from realism takes on a new meaning after daughter Ellie (Naomi Morris) is abducted by a White Rabbit who takes her into a lift shaft and they emerge in another world.
Suddenly Alice's means of escapism becomes reality as she too jumps into the lift along with her timid neighbour Jack (Stephen Webb) and they emerge in the bonkers world of Wonderland. And bonkers is probably the best way to describe the next couple of hours!
It's a surreal world inhabited by creatures who at one time were just like Alice, for they all wanted to escape real life and to live in a fantasy world where nothing is real.
The White Rabbit, who was once a high court judge, is played by one of the West End's finest musical exponents, for 65-year-old Dave Willetts is something of a legend.
I remember seeing him at Her Majesty's Theatre just days after he took over from Michael Crawford in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera while shortly after that he was playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at The Palace Theatre and he's been in constant demand ever since.
As Alice goes in search of her daughter she comes across an eclectic group of characters including Dominic Owen as the Cheshire Cat, a nervous March Hare played by Ben Kerr and a chilled out Caterpillar courtesy of Kayi Ushe.
Then there's former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters as the Queen of Hearts resplendent in her red dress and high heels along with the power-seeking Mad Hatter played by Natalie McQueen. Add to that a sleepy Dormouse (Devine Cresswell) plus Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (Benjamin McMillan and Benjamin Yates respectively) and you've got a whole host of quirky characters.
But for me the star of the show was always going to be 38-year-old mum of two Kerry Ellis as Alice. I loved her in Wicked while her voice is perfectly suited to the varied collection of songs that composer Wildhorn and lyricist Murphy have created for Wonderland.
Kerry's association with Queen's Brian May has also been a revelation – try listening to their amazing Candlelight Concert from Montreux on YouTube – while Wonderland's This Is Who I Am duet with The Mad Hatter is absolutely brilliant as fellow blonde Natalie McQueen has a similar voice.
Wendi Peters is perfectly cast as the Queen of Hearts and she also has an amazing powerful voice besides being very melodic… she also gives off plenty of hilarious facial expressions.
Regularly shouting "Off with their Heads" and happily eating jam tarts – that's three at each show, so 24 in a week! – Wendi's is more of a cameo role although she gets a rousing applause for her two songs, Hail The Queen and the aforementioned Off With Their Heads.
With Alice, Jack and Ellie all finally jumping through the Looking Glass and changing their outlook on life – Ellie becomes a typical stroppy teenager (think Harry Enfield's Kevin!) while Jack is now brave and heroic having previously been frightened to even speak to Alice.
Joined by four knights, Jack leads a great One Knight number in typical boy band-style while he duets with Alice in Love Begins following the tea party, Act One ending with the whole company joining in Through The Looking Glass.
Act Two is tighter with Willetts and Ellis duetting in I Am My Own Invention while Alice performs Once More I Can See in her own inimitable style before leading the cast in the finale with Finding Wonderland.
Credit to Kayi Ushe as the Caterpillar (with his four legs) as he sings Advice From The Caterpillar after the handstand-walking Cheshire Cat tells lies to both Alice and Jack. Then there's the voice of the Looking Glass (John Finnemore) who seems to enjoy answering everyone's questions with a question.
If there is criticism, then the volume of the eight piece band often overpowered some of the on-stage voices while Ellie (Naomi Morris) had a tendency to gabble and race through her lines making them almost incomprehensible. However she redeems herself with her solo number Home which she reprises in Act Two.
Wonderland plays Milton Keynes Theatre until this coming Saturday at 7.30pm nightly while there are matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. For tickets call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 (7p per minute, booking fees apply) or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes