Shmoozing in the hallway outside the Actors Studio after a performance of Leslie Pasternack’s “Clean Room,” we saw a poster for a performance of Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland Jr.” at Byfield Community Arts Center. Not exactly our cup of tea. Not by a longshot. Not with all that singing and dancing. But the director’s name caught my eye: Jack Neary. Hmmm, could it be the same guy? He’s one of those other kind of triple-threaters, a Mr. Everything of theater. An actor whose work ranges from the ‘80s, back to the fabled Theater of Newburyport days, when he performed in “The Cherry Orchard,” to his big-screen appearance last year in “The Town,” the Ben Affleck film where he plays Arnold Washton, one of the guys guarding the stash of concessions cash collected at Fenway Park after a four-game series with the Yankees suck. (Sorry, those two words always stick together.) A playwright whose production list is frustratingly long and impossible to condense, but includes well-known works like “First Night” and “Jerry Finnegan’s Sister,” both of which have had runs in the Port. A director with over 50 shows under his belt. A guy who has directed dozens of shows around New England, including productions at Smith College's New Century Theatre and at the Summer Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, both of which he founded. So could it be him?
A quick email confirms that, yup, he’s the guy. Which, of course, begs the question, what on earth is Neary doing in Byfield, directing a musical, a kids’ play, for goodness sake?
“Gotta pay the bills,” the Lowell-born playwright says. He’s joking. Sort of. You do have to pay the bills. Everyone does. But this is not a one-off. He’s been working with high-school-aged kids for over a decade and with middle-schoolers and younger for three or four years. He has had three adaptations of children’s stories published — “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “Robin Hood.” “Lunch Money,” his one-act play for middle-schoolers, won a City of Boston Dramatic Developments playwriting award in 2005. He’s also the author of “The Misdirected Theatre series,” a collection of plays for youngish audiences and performers. And just last year, in fact, Neary directed “Beauty and the Beast,” another Disney behemoth, for TTS, the Byfield production company managed by Mike Fay. Who knew? And, although we’re focused on “Alice” right now, Neary will be blasting off to rehearse “Chicago” at Dracut High School as soon as he gets off the phone.
“Alice Jr.” will be staged by TTS Players, the performing arts wing of Fay’s TTS Inc. The name stands for “That’s The Spirit,” which Neary says, is not only the name of the company but also its philosophy. “You’ve got to make sure you have a good show,” he says, “but you also have to make sure everyone gets to participate on some level.” He hooked up with Fay and TTS last year, when he signed on for “Beauty and the Beast.” The current production is also heavy on the Mouse. Its full name — that would be “Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr.,” with a proprietary copyright mark in front of the evil genius’ surname — should make that perfectly clear.
The production is based on the 1952 Disney film, with the book adapted by David Simpatico and music arranged by Brian Louiselle. And if you go ask Alice, or Grace Slick, she’ll tell you that there have been changes from the classic Lewis Carroll story to make it more ... well, “family friendly” is the term Neary uses. For example, there will be no hookah-smoking caterpillar, thank you very much, but you will find a bubble-blowing caterpillar. Sigh. The show also recycles that old Disney chestnut "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," rescuing the tune from the old “Song of the South,” which has been benched for questionable racial attitudes. But in addition to being family friendly, the show is still fun, fast paced and familiar. Alice still chases the White Rabbit, faces the Dodo Bird and beats the mean old Queen of Hearts at her own game. And there’s plenty of upbeat numbers, like "I'm Late” and “The Un-birthday Song."
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The TTS Players will present “Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr.,” directed by Jack Neary, at the Byfield Community Arts Center, 7 Central St., Byfield. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and seniors. Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 1-2, 8-9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 3 and 10. For reservations, call 978.463.3335 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the director, check out his website.