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A new Kansas City musical follows a teen video game inventor down a digital rabbit hole

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Photo by Jim Vaiknoras and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre
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Clockwise from top left: Courtney Germany (as Teacups), Genevieve Lefevre (as Alice), Robert Vardiman (as Teacups), and Danny Gage (as The Mad Hatter) in The Coterie's production of "Alice's Wonderland."

The Coterie Theatre re-imagines Lewis Carroll’s classic story “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” as a hip-hop and pop-inspired video game.

Brianna Woods had acted in shows around Kansas City and directed a radio series for Kansas City Actors Theatre, but she was nervous about her first time directing a live show.

“I was freaking out about it a lot of the time before we started,” Woods said. “And then I sat down and I was like, ‘Oh, it's just like me seeing all the other things that everybody would do around me.’”

The musical she's directing, “Alice’s Wonderland,” is based on the Lewis Carroll classic, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

"So I just got to be like, OK, if I was the rabbit, I would wanna do this. And if I was Alice, I would wanna do this," she said. "So I kind of put a lot of my own instincts around that.”

But, in this new version at the Coterie Theatre, co-written by composer and performer J. Quinton Johnson and composer, lyricist and playwright Julia Riew, Alice is a teenage video game designer.

The show also incorporates gospel, R&B, hip hop and pop, taking inspiration from musicals like “Hamilton.” Everyone in the cast is a person of color.

“So not only does it feel unexpected and new,” Woods said, “it also feels really natural to those who are giving it to the audiences.”

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Photo by Jim Vaiknoras and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.
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Left to Right: Douglass Walker (as Caterpillar), Danny Gage (The Mad Hatter), and Courtney Germany (as Cat) look at an image of Alice's game in The Coterie's production of "Alice's Wonderland."

Genevieve Lefevre, who plays Alice, grew up in Boston doing musical theater, but this production is her first time rapping.

“The biggest challenge for me was honestly gaining confidence in my rapping ability,” she said. “And to do that in a way that is still storytelling.”

As the musical opens, Alice (her friends call her Allie) is madly typing at a keyboard in front of three computer monitors. She’s coding her own video game.

But when she tells her friends about her game, they’re busy with other things. Frustrated, she unplugs the computer and it causes a glitch.

Alice soon takes a leap into her MacBook, into the virtual world of the game, to try to fix it, with the help of Rabbit, played by Robert Vardiman — familiar to Kansas City audiences with roles at Black Repertory Theater, KC Rep, Music Theatre Heritage, among others.

His song in the show is called "Jump."

“Basically it's me giving Alice the chance to come into the world of Wonderland,” he said.

Vardiman said he sees Rabbit as a liaison for Alice in the game.

“And I kind of help her get to each level and help her figure out how to save our land that we're in, how to save Wonderland itself.”

coterie-alices-wonderland-production-photo-102-900x600.jpg
Photo by Jim Vaiknoras and courtesy of The Coterie Theatre.
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A glitch in Alice's game, Wonderland, turns a benevolent queen into a harsh ruler in the Coterie's production of "Alice's Wonderland."

The projections, set design and lighting, Woods said, will transport viewers into the world of Alice’s video game — with, said Woods, a little "suspension of disbelief."

“So we have a lot of tricks and we have a lot of gags,” she said, “but we also have some, like, very old school tactics that I think make make-believe magical and wonderful and really come to life.”

After a pandemic pause, the Coterie is once again allowing young audiences to sit cross-legged on the floor next to the stage and close to the actors.

Woods said they'll invite kids to interact with the show — as Wonderlanders.

"I just want these young audiences to be as free as possible," she said, "especially, you know, if it's their first time (at a play) or if it's their first time at the Coterie."

Woods added, "It's a real sensory treat for everybody."

“Alice’s Wonderland,” through Aug. 7 at the Coterie Theatre on the lower level of Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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