Down the Rabbit Hole with Dave Willetts

The veteran actor prepares for an adventure in Wonderland, as Lewis Carroll's beloved fantasy gets a musical makeover at the Millennium Forum

Wonderland, a stage version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, comes to Derry's Millennium Forum this month on its first European tour since premiering in the US.

The show is a musical version of the much-loved 19th century classic that has been given a gritty reworking, with Alice now a divorced 40-year-old mother living in an anonymous housing estate in contemporary Britain.

The music is brought by heavyweight Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn, whose Grammy and Tony Award-winning career includes penning Whitney Houston’s hit 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go'?

Despite making its name in the States however, the Wonderland set for venues across the UK and Ireland bears little resemblance to its American cousin. Wildhorn’s songs remain but the script has been totally rewritten to appeal to audiences on this side of the Atlantic.

The cast includes stalwarts of the West End such as Wendi Peters as Alice, who played Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street, and Dave Willetts, who plays the White Rabbit.

Dave Willets

For Willets, a 30-year veteran of the stage who has played the leading roles in Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, his excitement about Wonderland comes from doing a new show and taking it on the road to audiences who wouldn't see it if the risk was not taken to tour it.

According to the actor, the rework we'll be seeing is much more than a cosmetic makeover, with new songs and lyrics not present in the US version, in addition to the tuned up script.

'Coming over here, the composers felt they did not want any relevance, apart from some of the songs, to the previous script,' he says. 'This is practically a brand new show. They felt coming to a British audience, and hopefully going into the West End, they wanted it to be a brand new show. The show we are doing now – you really would classify it as a completely different show because it is has a completely rewritten story for the UK market, and it seems to work.'

The Lewis Carroll stories have of course had high-profile makeovers in recent years with Tim Burton’s movie version of Alice in Wonderland and last year’s Alice Through The Looking Glass.

This musical version brings it into a contemporary setting and pits Alice against very modern dilemmas.

'It's a bit modern and a bit more adult, but it appeals to everyone from ten year olds to 80 year olds,' says Willetts. And though rewriting Alice as a 40-year-old woman transforms the story, he believes it allowed the writers to give more depth to the character

'It allows us to go a little bit deeper into her story. It’s not just a show for Easter or for Christmas. It's a fully-fledged all year round musical.'

Willis likens Wonderland to Wicked or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 'quirky shows that have an all round appeal'.

With a cast of 22 and a 12-piece orchestra, the scale of the touring production means audiences will be seeing an authentic, West End-sized performance.

'It’s a big show. People look at the title Wonderland and think that is a nice little pantomime type show, but it is not. I wouldn’t want people to be misled. It is not - it’s a big, big show.'

Wonderland 3

A singer who has released a number of albums, Willetts is choosing shows that appeal to him and it was the script and songs by one of Broadway’s best-known songwriters that helped persuade him to get involved.

'Frank Wildhorn is very clever,' he says. 'He has written songs that people probably won't have heard before but they will listen to the music and they will say, "I know that song. Where have I heard that song?" He has made the songs so catchy and so relevant to people that they can pick up the tune and know where the song is going.'

The reaction so far has been enthusiastic, he says, with the enduring appeal of the Lewis Carroll's stories helping to attract audiences in the first place.

'The whole effect of the show, it appeals to all audiences. Lewis Carroll had this idea of just transforming people to a different world, which took the imagination by storm. The good thing about the story is that it can be adapted in so many ways and that keeps it fresh.'

Wonderland is at the Millennium Forum, Derry from March 21 to 25. Tickets are available to book from Box Office, by calling 028 7126 4455 or from www.millenniumforum.co.uk.