Rediscovering Wonderland

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Rediscovering WonderlandFalling down the rabbit hole has never felt so enriching as experiencing it through the antics of 50 talented local children, who will bring “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” to life this weekend.

The beauty of Ridgecrest Musical Enrichment Society’s selection for this year’s Rising Stars production is that, although the beloved story is universally known, the inherent richness leaves the style and characterization open to unlimited interpretations.

Although much of the dialogue, musical numbers and iconic visual elements have been carried over from Disney’s 1951 animated musical version of Lewis Carroll’s story, Director Marla Cosner and the rest of the cast and crew have seamlessly woven their own fingerprints into this coming-of-age journey.

One of the devices that works particularly well here is the triple-casting of Alice for this weekend’s production (another trio will play her next weekend, but we’ll get to that in next week’s edition).

Holly Cosner starts us out as an equally curious, though perhaps bolder, version of the prim and proper youngster in the twilight of her childhood innocence. She confronts her boredom with an optimistic, if sassy, outlook that engages the viewer from her first moments on stage.

The White Rabbit, played by an effervescent Julia Rindt, captures Alice’s attention (and ours, too), leading her through the entrance to the enigmatic Wonderland. Julia’s rendition of the fretful lagomorph (as she is occasionally referred to) buzzes with an energy that surpasses the capacity of her diminutive frame.

Helping usher Alice through her journey is the Cheshire Cat, played with a charming chutzpah by Devyn French.

Shortly after Alice appears in Wonderland, she begins partaking of mystery food and drink that causes her to shrink or grow to more (and sometimes less) convenient sizes.

The smallest of these Alices is portrayed by Susanna Meech, whose stature somehow lends itself to Alice’s vulnerability — particularly in her interaction with a pack of “mean girls” in the flower garden.

Conversely, it is perhaps Deanna Belt’s (the tallest Alice) relative maturity that infuses such realistic frustration into her difficulty reconciling her childhood understanding with adult realities.

Katie and Julianna Merrill, as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, respectively, set the tone for these paradoxical conundrums that plague Alice during her time in Wonderland.

(And for any adults who still struggle to grasp the murky world of political caucuses, watching pirates and sea creatures dance in circles around a captain hemmed in by psychedelic coral in the “Caucus Race” scene will make approximately as much sense as the real-life exercise.)

Other standouts include Mallory Cosner as the Mad Hatter, Geoffrey Brown as Caterpillar, Naomi Meech as the Queen of Hearts and Kenneth Anderson as the King of Hearts. Although most of these performers are barely (and in some cases not yet) into their teen years, many are already veterans of the stage — and it shows. Each brings a dimension to the story that facilitates our willing suspension of disbelief and ability escape from reality into this one-hour flight into fancy.

The Rising Stars are also the first to appear on the newly reopened Cerro Coso Community College Lecture Center stage. There are a few advantages to this venue, including the stadium-style seating (I deliberately chose the “worst” seat I could find to determine that there are, in fact, no bad seats). And the heightened vantage means that the entire cast can dance on stage at the same time without us losing a single face (because, as all stage parents know, the most important child on stage is our own.)

The potential drawbacks of the space — namely, the absence of wings — just gave our dedicated crew an opportunity to creatively design the sets to make wing space unnecessary.

In keeping with the Risings Stars tradition of having representative set decoration, the pieces are all rich in color and detail without detracting any attention from the actual stars of the show.

Marla Cosner has also added live music to the production with the five-piece ensemble of Penny Belt on piano, Kimm Washburn on clarinet, Simon Austin on trumpet, Frank Montenegro on bass guitar and pit conductor Brian Cosner on drums. I found myself listening to the refined sounds of these accomplished musicians, wondering if other communities our size can pluck housewives and teachers and other individuals from their “day jobs” and successfully pass them off as professionals.

I ran across a meme last week that depicted a stately orchestra in the first frame with the caption “If you want to have this ...” showing, in the next frame, a group of student musicians with the embedded text “… then you have to have this.”

Maybe we are an anomaly, with our volunteer groups of vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers who deliver high-quality entertainment to our community year after year. But the fact is that most of these volunteers (along with a handful of teachers who have made the instruction of their crafts an all-consuming lifestyle) are the reason we have programs that reach out to our students and give them the performing arts training and experience they will carry forward in the future generations.

About 10 years ago, when California de-incentivized school districts to continue offering these programs, local advocates rallied around the cause to find a way to keep these offerings available to our children. RMES is one of the organizations that grew out of this effort, raising tens of thousands of dollars each for student programs year while offering quality entertainment in the valley.

Marla Cosner, one of these co-founders, had the vision of broadening the RMES mission to include opportunities that exclusively catered to children. We have the annual Rising Stars productions as a result of that vision.

While the values of this production as an evening of light-hearted entertainment stand on their own merits, it’s hard not to acknowledge the lofty goals that are achieved in the process.

You can catch the show Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m., or Saturday at 1 p.m. Doors open 30 minutes before curtain.

Tickets, available at Red Rock Books, are $8 general admission, $6 for RMES members and $7 for military, students and seniors.

Pictured: "Small" Alice (Susanna Meech, Hearts cast) flanked by the Cheshire Cat (Citlali Tellez, Diamonds cast) and the Queen of Hearts (Lydia Washburn, Diamonds cast) — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-03-05