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REVIEW: Thrilling WonderLand at the Hill House (Collide Theatrical)

The White Rabbit (Rush Benson), The Doctor (Jarod Boltjes), Alice (Miranda Shaughnessy), and the Mad Hatter (Patrick Jeffrey) in Collide Theatrical’s dance show Wonderland, now playing at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Wells Film & Photo.

There is nothing quite like seeing a good show in person. That’s not for lack of trying – over the past 15 months, much brilliance and innovation has been applied to streaming productions. Even the best results are a pale shadow of the magic of live music, theatre, or dance unfolding in front of your eyes without the intermediary of a camera and a screen. Collide Theatrical’s new dance extravaganza WonderLand, now playing at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, will make you fall in love with live entertainment all over again.

Where to begin? Collide has made its name with thrilling dance shows that seamlessly interweave classical, theatrical, and modern dance to a soundtrack of popular song remixes. WonderLand is no exception, but collapsed onto a chessboard dance floor laid across the Hill House’s backyard. Dancers stream from the mansion, pop up from behind the hill, and dart from behind trees as they enter. Instantly, their energy pulls you down the rabbit hole into this twist on Alice in Wonderland through the lens of mental illness.

A promotional image for Collide Theatrical’s production of WonderLand. Photo by Wells Film & Photo.

Dance in an outdoor venue? It has its perks. For most of the audience, the seats are radically closer to the action than you might expect in the Ritz Theater or the Cowles Center. Up close, you can see the whole action while also taking in the incredible details in the vivid costumes by Hilary Falk, for example. The smoke and bubble effects are extra magical – and unexpected – when they pop up so close. The sheer athleticism and artistry required of the seven dancers to sustain this energy over 80 thrilling minutes is impressive, not to mention dazzling.

So is the choreography, which was jointly created by the members of the company. Solo moments and featured numbers interweave smoothly with the group pieces, with a strongly etched and distinct character personalities on display. Patrick Jeffrey’s Mad Hatter has an altogether distinct flair than Renee Guitar’s dazzling Caterpillar, but the entirety still beats with a collective artistic rhythm. When Rush Benson breaks into a tap solo, it feels both novel and a natural eruption of the White Rabbit’s embodied energy. 

You might think that 80 minutes of uninterrupted dance on this theme would be exhausting to watch. The opposite is true here: the incredible variety and artistry has your eyes glued on the action from start to finish. Check the program afterwards and it seems astonishing that the afternoon included 25 pieces of music – driving 25 separate dance pieces – because of how fast the time flew by.

Collide Theatrical’s production of WonderLand takes audiences down the rabbit hole and into a world deeply inflected by mental disorder. Photo by Wells Film & Photo.

One of the organizing conceits of WonderLand is the asylum, in which newcomer Alice (Miranda Shaughnessy) is introduced to a colorful cast of inmates: the neurotically anxious White Rabbit (Rush Benson), the obsessively spastic Mad Hatter (Patrick Jeffrey), the attention-craving Red Queen (Heather Brockman and Regina Peluso in alternating performances), the tripping Caterpillar (Renee Guittar), and the disassociating Cheshire Cat (Chelsea Rose). Alice has a…more modern affliction, “one of the age”, as they say. These patients fall under the supervision of the benevolent Doctor (Jarod Boltjes), who may or may not have all the keys to the asylum firmly in his grasp. Periodic voiceovers by Ryan Colbert narrate some scenes showing what brought the characters to this point.

I could wax much longer about this show’s virtues, but the jist is this: seeing WonderLand is a spectacular and striking way to spend your afternoon. The show is chock-full of the magic of live entertainment that everyone has been waiting and hoping to return.

Collide Theatrical’s WonderLand plays outside the James J. Hill House in Minneapolis through May 30. From June 5-20, the show will play outside the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. Streaming/View-on-Demand tickets are also available to purchase, for use after May 28.

Basil Considine