"Alice in Wonderland" is a child's dream. Of course. Always was. But I'm talking now about Eva Le Gallienne's stage version of the Lewis Carroll classic, which returned last night at the Virginia (formerly the ANTA) in a production so gorgeous it almost makes "Cats" look impoverished.
But for whom is it intended? Children, even those pried away from their video games, will adore it. And as a holiday attraction, it is rivaled only by the City Ballet's "Nutcracker"; and like that, it should be an annual event. But this is a commercial venture, mounted on Broadway's excessive terms, and one doubts that its sponsors, however benevolent, are prepared to bring it back each season as part of the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas festivities. Perhaps it should be institutionalized at Lincoln Center.
Judged solely as a musical - there are "Wonderland" and "Looking-Glass" songs throughout, as well as a pit orchestra - it is old hat. But the hat belongs to the Mad Hatter himself, which takes "Alice" out of the realm of the conventional Broadway musical. The costumes designed by Patricia Zipprodt for the countless creatures encountered by the lovely Alice (Kate Burton) - the White Rabbit, Mouse, Fish and Frog Footmen, Mock Turtle, Caterpillar, White Knight, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the King and Queen of Hearts and those other cards in the deck, and, of course, in their elaborately tiered outfits, the white-faced White Queen (Le Gallienne herself, who, after having created the role 50 years ago for her Civic Repertory Theater, flies on and off) and a red-faced Red Queen (Mary Louise Wilson) - are of almost unimaginable richness and fancifulness.
The costumes and John Lee Beatty's swimming scenery, in which changing props are set against a traveling backcloth of captivating clean-lined drawings, constitute, in their outlines and black-and-white crosshatched touches mixed with vivid colors, glorious interpretations of the Tenniel illustrations, like the originals sprung to vibrant new life.
If I spend so much time on the visual aspects of the show, it's because the story (the venerable adaptation is the work of Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus) is familiar to all, and because the eye is continually filled with wondrous objects. The staging by Le Gallienne, whose concept the whole affair is, and her co-director, John Strasberg, is traditional, even somewhat commonplace at times, and the score the late Richard Addinsell composed ("The Walrus and the Carpenter" is the most extended song), and that has been sparked in a new orchestral adaptation by Jonathan Tunick, is old-fashioned, though pleasantly so. But such considerations take a back seat to, say, the obese and marvelously expressive Humpty Dumpty - a natty egg-shaped figure, with its broad mouth and curved eyebrows registering different emotions - that may be one of the many delightful creations of the Puppet People, an independent company worked into the entertainment.
Le Gallienne's White Queen is a joy to behold and hear, and so is Wilson's snappish Red Queen. Burton, as I have said, is an enchanting Alice, and the enormous cast (by present Broadway standards) includes engaging work by so many performers, most of them male, that one hesitates to single out any from their midst.
One might mention, though, the sweetly floating soprano voice of the offstage Nancy Killmer with which the show begins and ends, the "movement" contributions by the former dancer Bambi Linn (she was the Alice in Le Gallienne's 1947 revival), the musical direction of Lee Scott, the unobtrusive "sound design" by Jack Mann and the special effects by Chic Silber.
There are three matinees; there should be more, as the enormously successful "Peter Pan" revival of a few years back discovered quickly, even if it means keeping the kids out of school for a day. Le Gallienne & Co. are irresistible.
As Alice herself says at one point: "It seems very pretty but it's rather hard to understand." I felt the same about Eva Le Gallienne's production of Alice in Wonderland, which opened at the Virginia Theater last night.
It is certainly pretty - but its literal attempt at re-creating the magic world of Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, is not completely understandable.
Some things are left best in childhood fancy and adult dreams - they should be banned areas for the bulldozing visualizations of theatrical imitations.
This is not the doughty Miss Le Gallienne's first brush with Alice. Half a century ago she staged her theatricalization on Broadway, herself playing the White Queen. Now she is ensuring that history repeats itself.
And she is still playing, with undaunted energy, the White Queen, valiantly flying through the air like a geriatric Peter Pan. A magnificent theatrical gesture.
The play itself, which has been adapted from both of the Alice books by Florida Friebus and Miss Le Gallienne herself, is a painstaking, all-talking, all-moving recreation of scenes from Carroll.
John Lee Beatty's scenery and Patricia Zipprodt's costumes do an amazing job in reproducing Tenniel's original engravings. Helped by Jennifer Tipton's lighting and, on occasion, with wonderful puppets provided by The Puppet People, the entire performance is reverential to the original, and yet an antique visual delight in itself.
Carroll's outrageous puns and his mad sense of rococo fantasy, his crazy, childlike logic, his poetic love for the language and its usage, also give the evening a cultivated, literary ambiance, with its atavistic memories of Victorian nurseries we read about but never knew.
Unfortunately Carroll does not offer himself up to dramatization in the way, say, of Dickens. The Alice books have no real story to them - they are simply adventures, a series of imaginary encounters. These lend themselves more to the picturesque than the dramatic. Dickens might have written Nicholas Nickleby as a play or, more likely had times permitted, a movie script. Carroll would surely have done no such thing.
Apparently a number of hands, officially anonymous, have had a stir in the directional puddling. It is officially described as "Co-directed by John Strasberg" while the "Entire Production" is "Conceived and Directed by Miss Le Gallienne."
However, management unofficially acknowledges that Tommy Tune has been helpful with his advice, and that William Whitener, also unmentioned on the Playbill, has enlisted Bambi Lynn in the "musical staging." Of course, Tenniel and Alice is not a broth any number of cooks could really change, and the present resulting concoction is neither over- nor under-seasoned.
The odd music by Richard Addinsell (it sounds a little like Noel Coward and Ivor Novello trying to write Gilbert and Sullivan) is painless, and some of the performances are attractively on their illustrative target.
Mary Louise Wilson is fun as the feisty Red Queen, Curt Dawson does well as the quixotic White Knight, and John Heffernan drawls suitably as the Caterpillar. Miss Le Gallienne herself is a gallant White Queen, and, best of all, Kate Burton's Alice shines an effulgent glow of Victorian maidenhood over the entire show.
But, on the whole, I would have preferred to have stayed home and read the book - eating buttered crumpets in front of a warm fire.
If there's any philanthropist around who's still frantically shopping for a present to give New York City this Christmas, his worries are now over. At Broadway's Virginia Theater, there is an exquisite collection of scenery and costumes that must be preserved for the delight of future generations of children - no matter what the cost.
This isn't a joke. In the otherwise flat revival of the Eva Le Gallienne ''Alice in Wonderland'' which opened last night, the set designer John Lee Beatty and the costume designer Patricia Zipprodt have done an extraordinary job of bringing to life the celebrated storybook illustrations of Lewis Carroll's collaborator, John Tenniel. Virtually every Tenniel drawing has been rendered to the stage perfectly intact - from the ugly Duchess's kitchen to the Mad Tea Party to the Queen of Hearts' croquet ground to the flock of fowl gathered for the caucus race.
As befits the demands of the theater, the images are now large, three-dimensional and, with the help of the gifted lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, splashed with color. But the artisans at work have not vulgarized the originals: they've exercised tremendous care and good taste. Every detail is in place - even the curls of line on the sole of Humpty Dumpty's shoe - and all are lovely. For the Walrus and the Carpenter, we even get huge puppets (by a firm called The Puppet People), which are soon surrounded by lively smaller puppets taking the parts of dancing oysters. How wonderful it would be if this Victorian fantasy world were placed on permanent display in, say, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
As for the rest of the show at the newly refurbished Virginia, I'm sorry to say that there's nothing worth saving except Miss Le Gallienne's very brief appearance as the White Queen in the second act. Something has gone terribly wrong with this sweet mission to restore the pageant that was first performed triumphantly by the Civic Repertory Company a half-century ago and that was successfully revived in 1947. Even the beautiful physical trappings can't long prevent us from noticing that the current incarnation of ''Alice in Wonderland'' is lifeless nearly from beginning to end.
The problem is not in the adaptation that Miss Le Gallienne wrote with Florida Friebus way back when. It is a scrupulously faithful tour of the most cherished vignettes in the two Alice books. Like its source material, the text is episodic, indeed plotless, but even on stage that's a surmountable difficulty. One assumes it was surmounted on the previous occasions by a marshaling of all the theatrical energy that this version lacks.
The first deficiency presents itself as soon as the curtain rises - Alice herself. Kate Burton, who plays the part, is a well-spoken, hard-working young actress dressed to resemble her literary counterpart. But by no fantastical stretch of the imagination does she have the dazzling personal charm or even the warmth that might draw an audience closely to her or that might suggest a heroine with ''pure unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder.'' Nor does Miss Burton as yet have the skills that might allow her to vary her performance from one scene to the next. She is earnest but boring - a deadly mix in the starring role of a big Broadway show, especially when that role is the only one to turn up in every single scene.
The other mishaps have to do with the staging and the supporting cast. Except for the puppets, a cameo appearance by a trained pig and Miss Le Gallienne's airborne arrival, there are no surprises the entire evening. Nearly every scene is identical: the lights come up to reveal Mr. Beatty's and Miss Zipprodt's imaginative handiwork, and then the whole tableau remains frozen in place for a seeming eternity, like a department store window, until it's time for the next set to glide on.
The actors rarely move: they just model the costumes. And while they do indeed speak the famous Carroll words, they do so in a remote, disembodied way, as if the audience were not being invited to travel through the looking glass, but instead to look at Wonderland under the looking glass. The show isn't 20 minutes old before one is consulting the Playbill to count up how many scenes there are to go before it's time to go home. Children in the audience may well opt for sleep.
While there are some excellent comic actors in view - including John Heffernan, Mary Louise Wilson and MacIntyre Dixon - none of them breaks through the torpor for more than 10 seconds. They make the measliest attempt to create the topsy-turvy, caricatured human beings that their witty lines and outfits suggest. Miss Le Gallienne, a vision in white and silver with clown makeup and chalky voice to match, fares better: the only real laugh comes when she tells Alice, ''Never jam today!'' It's almost but not quite enough to make us overlook the fact that this giant of the American theater shares responsibility for the direction with John Strasberg.
According to a letter the production's management sent to the press this week, various other unbilled hands have visited ''Alice'' during previews to add ''flow'' and choreography to the enterprise. It's hard to imagine what they contributed, since there's no flow and next to no dancing. On the brighter side, Richard Addinsell's slight but pretty score has been attractively ''adapted'' by Jonathan Tunick. This proves of little avail, however, when one discovers that not a single member of the company can sing.
Let's just call it a sad day in Wonderland. A white knight couldn't rescue the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle and all the other endangered species at the Virginia soon enough.