Kate Shindle on the road out of ‘Wonderland’
It only lasted two months on Broadway, but the cast of the new musical Wonderland was never without water-cooler material. Actors of the show, based on Lewis Carroll’s characters, were handed a drastically revamped script just weeks before preview performances began. The show opened to blushingly bad reviews. The production was completely shut out of the Tony Award nominations, which led to a closing notice. Then during the show’s final performance on May 15—finally some good news—Darren Ritchie proposed to his co-star Janet Dacal during the curtain call. The engagement was caught on YouTube and set fans’ hearts and the Internet ablaze.
Kate Shindle played the Mad Hatter, re-imagined as a villain who represents Alice’s inner demons. Clad in dominatrix-style costumes by Susan Hilferty, Shindle’s image was used in much of the show’s advertising and promotional materials. The former Miss America (1998) sat down with Stage Rush to discuss Wonderland’s rocky run, the much-talked-about proposal, and blowing out her vocal chords for the final performance.
It seems like Darren Ritchie’s proposal to Janet Dacal during the final curtain call closed the Wonderland experience for everyone on an unexpected high note.
I was really glad to have something to celebrate. I was really bummed that the show was closing. As [the show] evolved, I started to wish it was going in a different direction. But at the end of the day, my job as an actor is to look at the words on the page and try to make them work.
Is it difficult to act in a show where the material isn’t working?
In previews, there were times when sections had been rewritten, but they weren’t there yet. There’s an urge to turn to the audience and be like, ‘Guys, I know you know this doesn’t work yet. But I think it’s going to work.’ Yet we’re obliged as actors not to comment on it or wink at the audience. You have to commit to the world. Sometimes you might think something’s not going to work, but if you commit to it enough, sometimes you figure out how to make it work and it becomes your favorite thing in the show.
VIDEO: Kate Shindle on the surprise proposal of Darren Ritchie to Janet Dacal at the final performance of Wonderland.
What was that period like before Broadway previews when the cast received the new script?
You spend six weeks off thinking, ‘I get it. I know what I’m doing,’ and then you just start from scratch. It was a really challenging, frustrating preview period. Sometimes I would come off stage thinking I’ve never had more fun in my life and sometimes I wished I could shoot myself in the face.
What do you think the creative team could have done differently?
I wish they had pushed the whole thing back and given it more time to germinate, which it seemed to need. We could Monday-morning-quarterback this thing all day, but I would point to a few moments where I think if only somebody had made a right or a left turn, it would have been different. Particularly rushing to open before the Tony Awards deadline and having that pressure.
What did you make of all the negative reviews?
We never officially opened in Tampa, but there were a couple reviewers who came and wrote about it. I read everything. I know some actors say they don’t read reviews. I think it’s really important information. You just have to know how to compartmentalize it. It’s good to know what’s making it across the footlights to people who do nothing but watch shows and write about them. I thought the general tenor of the reviews of our show were so over the top. A lot of them were so intent on what seemed to be a typical agenda. Probably one out of five reviews mentioned the performances. I’d look and be like, ‘OK, there’s a summary of my character, but no value judgment on whether it was executed well or poorly.’ I think the costumes got reviewed more than my acting.
Speaking of the costumes, how did they influence your performance?
It’s a very different type of costume than what I usually wear. That’s a given. When I first put the costume on, the hat and the makeup, I thought she would look weirder. I felt like, ‘Does she look too much like Lucy from Jekyll & Hyde? Do I look like I’m about to sing “Here’s To The Night?” Your costumes are never going to do all the work for you; they add a layer. Mine took me outside of myself, which was great. They were completely beautiful and I loved seeing them hanging on the rack and then putting them on. Especially after Legally Blonde, when everyone else was wearing sequined band costumes and I’m wearing a polo shirt.
The Wonderland version of the Mad Hatter is such a strong female presence. Did you get into that feminist element?
In rehearsals, one of the things I found myself saying was there had to be a purpose to the Hatter being female, because I was worried it was just a gimmick. We talked about the fact that the Hatter is female, because she represents a certain part of Alice. To me, the Hatter does have strength, and she’s definitely strongest in the beginning of the show when Alice is weak and defeated. In that way, they are sort of inverses. She represents what women, in particular, do to themselves on a daily basis—insecurity and self-sabotage. Those little voices in your head that tell you you’re a fraud and you’re not going to be successful. There’s also a sexy, fun part to the dark side of anyone, and that’s represented as well. I think part of the reason she was interpreted as strong was because I was literally, like, seven feet tall when I put on the costume. I’m a tall girl and once I put on four-inch platforms and a top hat, it all adds up. I felt like a tree.
Your second act number, “I Will Prevail,” was such a vocal challenge. How did you preserve your voice?
The hardest thing about that song was not over-singing it too soon. I had to constantly remind myself to save some for the end. When you have a song like that, you want to enjoy singing it; you don’t want to be worrying about it all the time. The last show, once we got to the point when we knew we were closing, I just thought, ‘Well, I don’t have to save my voice anymore, let’s just let it out.’ I didn’t really save enough for the last show. I ended up not even singing that last big note at the last show. I just stayed on the melody. I started to go up for it and realized, ‘It’s not there. Better just stay there instead of deafening everyone.’
Do you agree with Kate Shindle’s assessment of what plagued Wonderland, Rushers? What do you think went wrong for the show? What did you think of Shindle’s performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and tune into this week’s episode of Stage Rush TV to see more of my interview with Kate Shindle!