The Love Boat in Wonderland
With the death of the dryly sarcastic and always funny Jayne Meadows yesterday, I cannot help but to think back on the 1985 TV movie musical Alice in Wonderland in which she appeared as The Queen of Hearts. For any of you who grew up with this inception of the Lewis Carroll classic, you understand the deep affection I have for this tuneful, completely cheesy, almost Vegas-inspired version. Packed to the hilt with B list celebrities of stage and screen (and the occasional game show panel member), this two-part TV movie event felt like The Love Boat had crashed into Wonderland, spilling its decade’s worth of guest stars onto the colorfully designed soundstage. For me, it was a little slice of gaudy heaven.
Produced by Irwin Allen, famous for celebrity cameo-laden films and TV movies, and featuring a surprisingly tuneful score by Steve Allen, the production was a modest success. How could it not be? Every musical theatre infatuated boy and girl tuned in, drawn to the vulgar opulence and cavalcade of color that oozed over the screen. What other film boasts a cast list that includes Carol Channing, Ann Jillian, Eydie Gorme, Steve Lawrence, Shelly Winters, Sherman Hemsley, Red Buttons, Harvey Korman, Karl Malden, Sally Struthers, Jonathan Winters, Scott Baio, Martha Raye, Imogene Coca, Sammy Davis, Jr., Telly Savalas, Arte Johnson, Roddy McDowell, Anthony Newley, Jayne Meadows, Robert Morley, Sid Caesar, Ringo Starr, Ernest Borgnine, and countless others. Even It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World hadn’t supplied such a vast array of talent as Alice in Wonderland. In fact, the only person who seemed to be missing from the roster was Charo.
For all of its lack of subtly, there were definitely wonderful moments to be had in this version of Alice in Wonderland. Natalie Gregory, who plays a palatable Alice (less whiney and annoying than most interpretations), is deliciously paired with the Caterpillar stylings of Sammy Davis, Jr. A rap version of Lewis Caroll poem “You Are Old, Father William” is zesty fun. Martha Raye as the crabby Duchess and Imogene Coca as the pepper-pushing cook are hilarious, old school musical theatre fun in a duet celebrating hatred and meanness. Jayne Meadows is sublimely cruel and cutting in her big solo “Off with Their Heads.” I don’t think anyone will deny that Carol Channing is at her most animated ever as The White Queen singing “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday.” In fact, Channing gives one of the most memorable comedic performances in the film, ridiculously nonsensical and every bit Channing charming.
On the negative side, Anthony Newly is an uncomfortably creepy Mad Hatter. Though he is in lovely voice, there is nothing funny or character driven about his song “Laugh”, which, considering it sits in the middle of one of Carroll’s most hectic and outrageous chapters, brings the “Mad Tea Party” to screeching halt. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum have all of the charm and humor of sedated librarians as interpreted by husband/wife duo Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Ringo Starr adopts the turtle pace of the Mock Turtle, growing increasingly more tedious with each belabored sentence. Finally, Telly Savalas is downright disturbing as the Cheshire Cat, who apparently spends most of his time making an art form out of predatory leering.
I highly recommend checking out this version of Alice in Wonderland. You will find yourself vacillating between abject curiosity and joyous fascination. It is a crazy quilt of sequins, flash and trash, quixotic performances, and high energy that keeps its cheese factor in fondue form. Is it great musical theatre? My goodness, no! Is it worth your time? An unqualified YES!