First made popular in Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then (most notably) in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the character of Willy Wonka has remained a cultural icon. Even Tim Burton and Johnny Depp tried their luck with him in a 2005 feature. The rarely produced stage musical version — Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka — runs through May 11 at Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory, combining elements of both the book and the movie. It’s a compact enough telling of the story, with some modern touches, not as dark as the Gene Wilder film but not nearly as enchanting either.
Here the infamous Wonka (played by Craig Waldrip) is more of a narrator, present in the opening musical number, “Pure Imagination.” Looking to turn over his factory to a rewarding heir, he inserts golden tickets into candy bars for a chance, ostensibly, to visit his factory and take home a lifetime supply of chocolate. All over the world, kids snatch up candy bars looking for the five winning tickets. Among the lucky winners are Augustus Gloop (Brittany Crisp), Veruca Salt (Katie Hollenshead), Violet (Amelia Kushner) and Michael (played by Stephen Shankle, standing in for Jeb Carter and Mitch Gerding), all of whom are certified brats accompanied by protective, eager to please parents.
Rounding out the group is sweet little Charlie Bucket (Christian Conte). He lives at home with his impoverished family, including four bedridden grandparents, who eat cabbage soup every night. The family buys him a ticket but it’s not a golden one. Eventually fate plays a role in securing him one. Winning ticket in hand, Charlie chooses his Grandpa Joe (Jim France) to accompany him on the tour. Once inside, he and the winners are made to follow every rule Wonka — assisted by his diminutive Oompa Loompas — throws at them.
Visually, Fabrefaction’s new musical is quite whimsical. Lucas Godfrey’s set is terrific. During the first act, various “locations” — such as Charlie’s living quarters — are wheeled in and out, while the second act is more immersed deep inside Wonka world. Godfrey’s colorful, gumball-loaded factory is as much a character as the humans. Deyah Brenner’s costumes are also first-rate.
The music, however, is erratic. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Oscar-nominated score from the movie — “Pure Imagination,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “The Candyman” and various refrains of “Oompa Loompa” — has been incorporated into the stage take. Quite a few new numbers have been added as well, and while some are catchy — such as “I Eat More,” detailing Augustus’ appetite — the bulk don’t add much.
This spring, Fabrefaction officially changed its name and incorporated a forum that provides opportunities for grade school, high school and college age performers to try out for future productions and mix it up with professional actors. That proves to be a dual-edged sword here. It’s certainly a way to engage, find and encourage talent of tomorrow, but it also gives the production something of a “let’s give everyone a turn” feel.
With this show, director Christina Hoff has to juggle a huge cast of adults and children. In all, there are 56 cast members, 39 of which are students. All but three of those students alternate between performances. At times, though, it seems like every cast member — including a large ensemble — is on stage and it makes for a busy intersection.
The adult performers are generally fine. Waldrip is nicely suited to handle the musical range and he doesn’t overdo the character of Wonka, giving him something of a subversive edge without making him overbearing. Among those lending impressive support are Chase Steven Anderson, who has two droll scenes as Phineous Trout, a reporter spreading the news about the five lucky kids, and Diane Mitchell as Mrs. Gloop. The Oompa Loompas, too — played the night I attended by students Margaret Anne Coleman, Molly Clare Neel, Benjamin Fisk, Nadia Crawlie, Cara Sullivan, Parker Whitlow and Abby Janis — are a flexible, talented bunch, abetted by some clever choreography. Yet the bottom line is that some of the younger performers aren’t quite as engaging as others. That’s especially clear among the five principal kids’ roles. Crisp and Hollenshead seem very comfortable in their roles, but the others struggle a bit in navigating both the acting and singing challenges.
The original stage version of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka premiered in 2004 and the rights have been recently pulled, making the Fabrefaction Theatre Conservatory’s take perhaps one of the last versions to be produced. It has some charms, but those unaware of the story are likely to eat this up a lot more enthusiastically than those with fond memories of it growing up.
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