One of the most popular, charming and imaginative tales ever told, “Alice In Wonderland” —originally published as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll in 1865—is a worldwide pop culture phenomenon once again thanks to Disney’s new film mixing live action and animation, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
Considering the clamoring for all things Alice, there could never be a better time for Las Vegas based pianist and arranger Maria Russell to release Wonderland Escapades: A Musical Dream—a beautifully conceived and crafted CD of songs composed by her mother Gloria V. Russell that were inspired by scenes, characters and set pieces from the well known children’s story.
Broken into three acts with several scenes and songs each, Wonderland Escapades features Maria’s arrangements and piano and keyboard performances, as well as guest vocals by Shelley Martinsen and Dan Frank, singers for the Vegas based Nevada Opera Theatre. Among the many musical endeavors around the city that Maria takes part in, she has been the featured pianist with this theatre for the past eight years.
While the movie’s success makes the timing of the stylistically diverse CD intriguing, this is actually a labor of love begun by Gloria many years ago, when the Russell family lived in Fort Walton Beach on the Florida Panhandle. Gloria originally composed the opening song “Dream Child” as a lullaby for Maria when she was a baby, and wrote the other songs some years later when her daughter was taking ballet lessons. Gloria’s goal was to compose a new version of “Alice in Wonderland” as a ballet for the Fort Walton Beach Ballet Company.
Because she lacked a formal background in music, she sang the songs on cassette tapes which she then had transcribed to sheet music by a friend named Francis Garziglia. He passed away before he could finish transcribing, and this budding treasure trove of 20 songs (the current project has 13 tracks plus a reprise of the high energy “Wacky Hot Wheels”) languished for many years–during which time Maria grew up, attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and began carving a multi-faceted musical career in the city.
“About five years ago, my mom and I started talking about these songs and thought they might make a very good family and children’s recording project,” says Maria. “We started reviving some of the songs and made them more upbeat and contemporary. While they were originally conceived for a ballet, we realized they would work even better as part of a musical theatre production. Because my degree was in piano performance, I knew I could create great arrangements and also finish some of the songs that hadn’t been completed. Our idea was to bring the project up to date, and because Shelley and Dan also do a lot of character acting and singing, I knew they would be perfect for the vocals.”
“We have ambitions now to turn Wonderland Escapades into a musical, and have written a script for it” she adds, “but mom’s first goal was to put the songs on a CD. To give them context, we wrote a bit of a storyline that listeners can follow in the liner notes. We break everything into acts, scenes and characters so everyone can follow along as they enjoy the music. We did the recording in a studio at UNLV and were so excited to hear the songs come to life after so many years. I grew up enjoying the original book ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the original animated Disney film, and now fully appreciate why it is so timeless.”
One of the remarkable aspects of Wonderland Escapades is Maria’s brilliant and eclectic arrangements, which make each song stand alone as a unique entity representing a different character or setting in Wonderland. “Dream Child” (about when Alice begins falling asleep), “Wonderland Dream,” “Waltz of the Roses” and “Magic Ballet” are classically influenced, while “Wacky Hot Wheels” is an irresistibly funky instrumental synth and piano romp. The pianist weaves a percussive tango into “The Fan Tango” and gets frisky on the vocal tune “The White Rabbit Dance,” which captures the scene where the white rabbit runs across the field and into the rabbit hole. “Pup and Purr” sets the tone after Alice enters the enchanted forest and runs into a big pup chasing what turns out to be the Cheshire Cat (who introduces himself via the jazz and blues influenced “Cheshire Cat Blues”).
Other tracks include “The Dee Dum Dee Song” (which finds Alice running into two brothers fighting over a rattle), “The Jub Jub Jig” (which refers to the funny dance done by the dragonlike Jabberwocky), “Teattle Tottle Dance” (after the Mad Hatter invites Alice to his tea party) and “Wondrous Parade,” which functions on the CD (and, one day, will on stage) as the curtain call.
Wonderland Escapades is available for purchase on CDBaby.com and as a digital download on iTunes.
When Gloria began composing these songs during Maria’s childhood, she could scarcely have imagined the accomplished musical force her daughter would one day become. A professional pianist since the age of eleven, Maria received the Devos Music Scholarship from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s of Music in Piano Performance and a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Computer Science.
Maria’s musical background includes performances at various Las Vegas casino/hotels and restaurants, including the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and most recently the Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas. Serving as the musical director and keyboardist for the City of Las Vegas Melodramas in the Park, she arranged scores to fit the action and drama of the plays.
As pianist for the Nevada Opera Theatre for the last eight years, she has performed on piano and keyboards with the orchestra for the production of “Gigi” and many others. Maria has also produced five previous CDs and currently plays at two Las Vegas churches (The Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer and Holy Family Church) and the Ritz Carlton, Lake Las Vegas. Tate Music Group is in the process of producing the second edition of her Soaring With Angels CD, due in mid-2010. She is also a freelance graphic artist and website designer.
“I really loved all aspects of the experience of arranging and recording Wonderland Escapades,” she says. “It was fun talking with mom about what she originally envisioned for these songs and trying to figure out ways to make them true to that intent while also becoming part of a viable commercial project. It’s exciting to take this project to the next level and now we’re all geared up to put the pieces together to make it a full-fledged musical.”