Junior Gia Lish and Senior Brady Martin in 'Alice by Heart'

In ‘Alice by Heart’ ‘A Little Darkness is Good’

In Alice by Heart, the 2024 Upper School musical presented in Colorado Academy’s Leach Center for the Performing Arts April 18-20, a girl takes refuge in a London Tube station during World War II and confronts grief, loss, and love with the help of her favorite book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. From Tony® and Grammy® award-winning creators Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, and co-written by Jessie Nelson, this production swings toward the darker side of the musical theater genre, as teenage Alice Spencer escapes into the book with her friend Alfred, where they explore the poignancy of life and find a way to persevere.

“A little darkness is good,” says director and theater instructor Maclean Looper of the decision to stage Alice as the followup to Mamma Mia, the beloved revue-style spectacular that entertained CA audiences in 2023 with hit song after hit song by the Swedish supergroup ABBA. That crowd-pleaser of a show represents just one facet of the genre, he explains, and as educators first and foremost, he and his colleagues in the Department of Theater and Dance want to make sure students and families understand that musical theater encompasses so much more.

“While its origins may have been in the shiny costumes, light comedy, and popular songs of the early 20th century,” Looper recounts, “the uniquely American genre known as the ‘book musical’ is all about telling an emotional story through music and lyrics. Rather than spelling things out like a movie, a show such as Alice is more like a wave that washes over you, forcing you to step back and sort of let the feelings hit you.”

The usefulness of tragedy

The musical’s central questions—What does it mean to grow up? Should we hold on to innocence? How do we deal with loss?—are weighty ones, and certainly resonate with today’s high school students. 

“One of the biggest challenges young people face right now, especially at a place like CA, is that many of them don’t face much real hardship, at least not the way their parents or grandparents might have. Families are incredibly skilled at protecting their kids from struggle or the experience of loss. But without that practice at overcoming adversity, I think a lot of kids are at risk of being derailed by anxiety or just shutting down,” Looper asserts.

“Tragedy,” he goes on, “is a way for audiences to confront discomfort and grief, and to build the resilience they need for real life’s challenges. That’s a huge benefit of an art form like musical theater: allowing us to face the hard things in a safe environment, where people are there to high-five us when the scene is over.”

And Lewis Carroll’s Alice is the ideal hero to lead us through the experience, Looper says. Centering on the perspective of a girl in the midst of a fraught transition to adulthood, the story sees Alice encountering a cast of characters who are all trying to persuade her to remain in their fictional, fantastical world and avoid the troublesome, frightening real one. But the lesson of the narrative, according to Looper, is that at some point in life, we all must step outside the refuge of fiction and into whatever may be waiting for us.

“The ability to grieve, to let yourself cry—these are essential skills for anyone,” says Looper. “And ultimately, it’s experiencing the bad that gives color to all the good things in life.”

Enjoying the ‘playground’

In a world where, it seems, fewer and fewer students are taking up the performing arts every year, Looper says that he’s encouraged to know that performance and creativity are part of CA’s “DNA.”

“Half of my cast is involved in orchestra or choir, as well,” he acknowledges. “And the reality is that we sometimes have to pause a rehearsal so kids can go over to Schotters Music Center, sing or play their instrument, and then come back to the theater. As a department we’ve talked about offering more specialization, more opportunities to go deeper into one particular discipline, but we always come back to the fact that CA kids just want to contribute in a wide variety of ways.”

That’s why, he goes on, musical theater makes for such a great “playground” at CA. “We don’t want to do just one thing. We get to sing and dance and act simultaneously? Where do I sign up?!”

Particularly exciting this year has been working with a large contingent of Ninth Grade performers, many of whom gained early experience under the direction of theater and dance instructor Melissa Zaremba in the annual Middle School musical. “This talented young group has been a joy to work with,” attests Looper. “They love to be on the stage in almost any capacity.”

Ninth Grader Vivi Rosenquist as the Queen of Hearts

Those Ninth Graders and the rest of the cast had to work hard to bring light, color, and song to the deliberately drab, gray, subterranean set of London’s Underground, which was designed and constructed by Looper, theater tech instructors James Meehan and Ian Marzonie, and the students in the Upper School’s Theater Tech class. The “post-apocalyptic palette,” as Meehan describes it, stands in stark relief to the imaginary wonderland the characters explore.

Adding to the sparkle were professional pit musicians who brought Alice’s songs to life. Whereas last year’s ABBA hits were all pre-recorded, live musicians lent something like magic to the score, according to Looper. “The second the band started playing during rehearsals, you could see everyone on stage light up; it was like the sun came out, shining on their faces and amazing smiles. I thought to myself, ‘The music lives in them.’”

Alice by Heart may journey to the darker corners of human experience, but CA’s Upper School theater and dance students and faculty ensure every musical moment glows.