By Liz Nicholls, .ca
How do you get to Wunderland? A spot quiz.
No, fellow travellers, not by LRT (get real). Not by sneaking through the stage door at the Varscona, or clicking your heels in the gazebo in the park next to Walterdale. Not by holding your breath till you see purple spots or dancing donairs.
Contrary to literary tradition Wunderland isn’t down, it’s up. Up the stairs in the brick building in Strathcona across from Meat and The Next Act, a few doors south of Pip. That’s the stronghold of the Spotlight Cabaret, an elegantly chandelier-ed second-floor niche where they create kooky, high-speed original song-and-dance-and- comedy entertainments — and serve whimsically themed cocktails, and fancy and delicious four-course dinners, with options that include beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian, and vegan choices.
And, judging by the Spotlight’s latest, Alison Wunderland, it’s where, under musical director Simon Abbott, four performers mine — exuberantly — a wide swath of pop music, from the Rolling Stones to Fleetwood Mac, Grace Slick to Rihanna (“We have a strict no-Enya and no-Seal policy,” we’re told). And the impeccable sound is the work of sound/lighting designer Aaron Macri.
It’s also where beaming Spotlight co-proprietors Aimée Beaudoin and Jeff Halaby along with their cast-mates Jamie Hudson and Tyler Pinset never stop dipping into a giant tickle trunk of unlikely props and preposterous wigs and costume pieces. And where, in John Hudson’s production, you don’t have to hold your breath to bring on the mesmerizing vision of a couple of agile meat wraps, with all the trimmings including foil cummerbunds, get down, and argue about hot sauce vs tzatziki. It just happens, and then the donairs dance away. Curiouser and curiouser.
Sulky crustaceans and beaming whales with dance moves weren’t, as I recall, available on Alice’s meet-and-greet down the rabbit hole in the original. Lewis Carroll was stingy that way. But that was then and this is now. The Caterpillar (Pinset) with his hookah is draped over the bar getting high. And the Cat is so Cheshire he shimmies from a puppet (designed by Terri Grant) into a hologram (designed by Macri), who grooves to Dreams.
Anyhow, in Alison Wunderland, which opens to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow/ Wonderful World ukulele medley, our heroine (Hudson) is a 16-year-old in the classic blue frock whose career aspiration is to be an influencer. To this end, she spends all her time in her room “telegraphing” her friends, accumulating likes and trying to grow her following. Her parents aren’t thrilled.
That business with the hyperactive White Rabbit (Pinset) — sorry, the Whyte Rabbit, “with a y, bitch, like the Avenue.” — always running late, is a life-changer. And Alison’s world goes even more topsy-turvy when she hits the “eat me/ drink me” table. Oh yeah, that was our table, too, where the pre-show soup and salad turned into the main course chicken and the sesame ginger tofu at intermission, both excellent.
Act II is devoted to an imminent encounter with “you know who,” the dread Queen of Hearts (Beaudoin), whose go-to greeting of “off with her head!” has left people a little leery. The Whyte Rabbit and Alice are late (parking problems, wouldn’t you know, and getting lost because of all the bike lanes).
But I must leave off; this, my friends, is the plot. And it would be the height of lunacy to explain that in detail. Except to say that the creators have a go at putting the boot into this ridiculously imperious un-democratic queen — with her terrible ideas about grabbing everyone’s pension money and ruining the environment — and her sycophant sidekick (Halaby). Both are very funny. Ring any bells, Albertans?
Anyhow, plucky Alison isn’t daunted. The phrase “selfish brutality” springs to her lips, and the Wednesday night audience cheered. Can the world be changed, filled with (“con-scent-ual”) flowers and democratic good will? Yes, yes, possibly, why not, my friends. “But the North Side will still be shitty.”
The quartet of performers are strong singers and selfless dancers in a small space, choreographed by Mhairi Berg. And they throw themselves into a musical comedy that plays with as well as for the audience, a sort of custom-made house party. Beaudoin and Halaby are relaxed comedians and improvisers, and droll hosts, amused by their guests. At the outset they take the time to find out birthdays, jobs, anniversaries, break-up parties and divorce celebrations among us. And quick on their feet, they extrapolate, and thread the evening’s entertainment with references to what they’ve learned. It’s a playful kind of audience participation, light of touch, unthreatening, and fun.
What, after all, could be kookier than reality? That’s the wonder of Wunderland. It will, I feel sure, be the only time the Canadian Tire in Leduc claims a place in a cabaret.
Theatre: Spotlight Cabaret, 8217 104 St.
Written by: Aimée Beaudoin and Jeff Halaby
Directed by: John Hudson
Musical direction: Simon Abbott
Starring: Aimée Beaudoin, Jeff Halaby, Jamie Hudson, Tyler Pinset
Running: through Jan. 21, Wednesdays through Sundays