Autumn has come to Boston. And, in addition to the invasion of studentia (with more than 100 colleges, the city virtually doubles in size every Labor Day), we mark the season with yet another visit from the national touring company of blockbuster Broadway hit, Wicked.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of Gregory Maguire’s dense, imaginative retelling of The Wizard of Oz. And, despite the qualms of many other critics, I love Stephen Schwartz’s musical adaptation.  I too have rooted for “the green girl” as she turned her back on a hypocritical fascist regime and “defied gravity.”

But, I’ve seen it – twice. And tickets for the current production range from $47.85 to $192.60 – apiece.  Sorry, Elphaba, I hope you and your flying monkeys “are happy in the end,” but an evening at Wicked just isn’t in the budget.

So what’s a musical theater lover to do?

One of the benefits of living in a college town is that there’s always something going on. Recently, the Boston arts scene offered two inspired musical theater alternatives. These more innovative options were anchored in local universities but offered professional caliber productions – at a much nicer price. Interestingly, both shows I attended were based on familiar family entertainment.

The first was Fraulein Maria, which made its Boston debut at the magnificently refurbished Paramount Theater, kicking off the inaugural season of ArtsEmerson.  Emerson College is a renowned school of performing arts and communications, whose own student productions are nothing to sneeze at. This production, however, comes from the imagination of world-class choreographer Doug Elkins.

The audience was welcomed by emcee Michael Preston, a former Flying Karamazov Brother, who conducted us in a rousing three-part version of “Do-Re-Mi.” It was a brilliant opening, by which we all became artistic co-conspirators. It was very difficult to act snobbish about the source material after belting out your own – albeit off-key – rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

And, soon, the hills were “alive with the sound of music,” literally. Dancers became the landscape, swathed in green fabric, topped by a white scarf graciously donated by an audience member. A primitive puppet Maria twirled through as a bright yellow plate rose in the sky. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in the Alps anymore.”

A brisk 70-minute series followed, with Elkins’ energetic troupe reinterpreting virtually all of the musical numbers from the classic 1965 Julie Andrews movie. But just as Elkins toyed with our expectations in the opening number, he created surprises throughout. There wasn’t one Maria, there were three – including a rather startled-looking man. The nuns wore white-trimmed black hoodies. The von Trapp children resemble nothing so much as club kids. The ingénue Liesl (also coyly danced by a man) ignores boyfriend Rolf’s more sexually charged moves and sticks to a comically classic pas de deux in the coming-of-age melody “16 Going on 17.”

The story behind Fraulein Maria is inspiring as well. A dance wunderkind in the 1980s, Elkins developed a reputation for mashing up a gumbo of styles, ranging from breakdance, hip-hop, and stomp to ballet and the oh-so-serious modern aesthetics of Martha Graham. Add a touch of Buster Keaton and Monty Python, and it becomes clear why Elkins describes himself as a “style thief.” He disbanded his company after 15 years in order to spend more time at home with his two young children. And it was these two, Liam and Gigi, for whom Elkins created Fraulein Maria. Elkins recognized that something as universally familiar as The Sound of Music could be the perfect canvas for his colorful reinventions.

Surprisingly, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation agreed to the use of their sacred material – provided that Elkins and his troupe stick to dancing and refrain from singing.

Earlier versions of Fraulein Maria were criticized for ignoring the sinister undercurrent of the Nazi occupation of Austria. After all, if the nuns hadn’t interfered on the family’s behalf, Maria and the children would never have made it to the United States, a thriving musical career, and a mountain vacation resort in Stowe, Vermont. The current production seems to have addressed this in a startling number, set to Christopher Plummer’s bittersweet “Edelweiss.” Presented on a park bench, as a threatening seduction, it features an arm-banded Preston making more and more aggressive moves on a witless Elkins. In his trademark blurring of styles, there is much humor: at one point, Preston raises his arm in a “Heil Hitler” salute and Elkins mistakes it for a hat rack, a piece of business that reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. There’s a sorrowful truth beneath the comedy.

High-powered group numbers like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd” showcased Elkins’ virtuosic company. A highlight for me was “Climb Every Mountain,” in which we had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about twenty years ago. In a dark hood and long athletic shorts, Elkin reinterpreted the Mother Superior’s heavy-handed, motivational anthem into something that transcended the source material and reflected the power of dance to communicate a very basic human need to persevere.

Uplifted by my experience, I sought out another piece of alternative theater. This time I attended Alice vs. Wonderland, billed by Harvard’s American Repertory Theater as a psychedelic update of the beloved Lewis Carroll story, or “Alice in Wonderland meets Lady Gaga.” I thought that it would be an interesting complement – or contrast – to the piece I’d seen the night before.

Alice vs. Wonderland, presented at A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, is a new piece by Brendan Shea, A.R.T.’s Dramaturgy/Artistic Fellow and a 2010 graduate of the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training. It’s directed by acclaimed Hungarian visionary Janos Szasz, and originally premiered in Moscow. The show features professional actors, as well as the A.R.T. Institute class of 2011.

The 1951 Walt Disney cartoon feature aside, Alice has been reinterpreted countless times, with many creative teams choosing to emphasize its darker, more adult themes. In fact, the most recent Disney version – directed by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp as one of the maddest Mad Hatters yet – set its story in a post-apocalyptic Wonderland where one particularly grisly scene confirmed that “Off with their heads” was no mere threat.

A.R.T.’s production may center around the existential angst of a young girl – or, in this case, six young girls who combine to play the fragmented teenage Alice – but it is decidedly not for children.  The material is dark; the stage is dark.  It feels as though Alice has fallen down a haunted mine shaft rather than the hole of a talking bunny.  And when she feels the need to express herself, it’s through the plaintive lyrics of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

“I wish I were special, 
        But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo,
        What the hell am I doing here?
        I don’t belong here …”

Companion novels Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass do indeed have dark themes. But without some lightness, you can’t really appreciate them. Similarly, this Alice began with such a frustrated, almost frantic vibe from the very beginning that I wondered where it could go.

In Alice vs. Wonderland, Alice journeys along with typical teen props – backpack, skateboard, Powerbook and massive attitude. Along the way, she meets familiar characters, all of whom are more sinister than I remember them. The Queen of Hearts isn’t the only one threatening decapitation in this Wonderland. There are some clever bits of staging and some interesting modern takes on Alice’s conversations. Standouts include tutu-wearing twins, who introduce themselves: “I’m Dee.” “I’m Dum, but I’ve always preferred Francesca.” Two actors in a single pair of pants transform themselves into a disjointed Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat is particularly oily. And the Queen of Hearts is finally portrayed as the full-blown S&M fetishist we’ve always known her to be behind palace doors.

The show, which ran 90 minutes without intermission, assaulted the senses with pounding music and lighting effects. The ensemble was onstage most of the time, rearranging set pieces and commenting constantly. If the goal was to put us inside the head of an anguished teen suffering from schizophrenia, it certainly succeeded.

The weakest link in an otherwise bold production was the Alices. The decision to cast several girls was an interesting one, but it kept the audience from identifying with the play’s main (and sole real-life) character. The young actresses portraying Alice were uneven, and it’s difficult not to make comparisons when a new actress pops up in the leading role every 15 minutes. Some of them held their own with the more accomplished actors on the stage, and some did not.

That said, while Alice vs. Wonderland was not as uplifting as Fraulein Maria, and the production itself was a bit rougher around the edges, it did make you stop and think. One of the exciting aspects of re-imagined theater such as these productions is that it forces you to compare the old and the new, the source material and the reinterpretation. Would you make the same decisions?  Is this what the original author, composer, lyricist meant all along? Or has a new creative voice made a 50- or 100-year old property meaningful for today’s audience?

While the two shows were very different in tone and execution, both Fraulein Maria and Alice vs. Wonderland succeeded in pushing the audience to see something old in a new light. When it comes to musical theater, there’s more than one way to “defy gravity.”

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