Much like his confectionary creation the Gobstopper, Willy Wonka’s appeal is everlasting. Introduced in 1964 to an audience of children worldwide via Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka has appeared in films portrayed by Gene Wilder (1971) and Johnny Depp (2005), and inspired a real-life line of candy products made by Nestlé. The Wilder film featured an Oscar-nominated musical score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, which included the song “Candy Man,” later popularized by Sammy Davis Jr.
Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald incorporated that score along with some new material into a 2004 stage adaptation, retitled Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, and that’s the version running now at Town Theatre.
Dahl’s dark fable is somewhat more subversive than the typical children’s story, with selfish kids suffering extreme — if deserved— consequences for their misbehavior: getting sucked into a pipe filled with molten chocolate; ballooning into a giant blueberry; being digitally miniaturized and then stretched back out. The premise revolves around eccentric and reclusive candy manufacturer Wonka (a charming yet surreal Scott Vaughan) opening up his factory for a tour by five lucky winners of Golden Tickets hidden in chocolate bars. Hapless protagonist Charlie (Nathan Jackson, alternating with Jack Seezen) is poor, yet through a series of fortuitous coincidences — or are they? — he joins four spoiled brats for the trip of a lifetime into Wonka’s magical world.
The musical has been staged by a number of local groups in recent years, including a 2010 version at Workshop Theatre with Vaughan playing the lead. Part of its popularity stems from opportunities for actors of all ages. Wonka, Charlie’s family, and the parents of the other winners are all played by adults, with tweens portraying the principal child roles, and younger performers filling in as Oompa Loompas (Wonka’s diminutive factory workers).
At the matinee performance I attended, Jackson’s sympathetic and endearing performance as Charlie was as professional as that of any adult. “Think Positive,” his duet with his father (Charlie Goodrich) in which each cheers the other up, was especially touching, and the two actors displayed a natural and easy rapport. Jeremy Hansard (Charlie’s Grandpa Joe), Kerri Roberts (reporter Phineous Trout) and Jeremy Reasoner (the Candy Man) played Higgins, Eliza and Freddie respectively in 2016’s My Fair Lady at Town, and their rich voices are put to good use here.
Many of the children’s roles are double-cast, but on any given night, some 50 of the cast of 65 are on stage, and thankfully, Reasoner — who doubles as the show’s musical director — has a talented ensemble to work with. Songs are sung to a recorded score, meaning that the cast has to keep up at all times, with no option of a live band to cover for any glitches, but even the tiniest performers managed to hit their marks and pick up their cues without issue.
Rebecca Seezen got plenty of laughs as Mrs. Gloop, the mother of gluttonous Augustus (James Rabon, alternating with Cale Wilson), as did Michael Seezen as Mr. Salt, father of petulant Veruca (Carmen Quay, alternating with Reily-Grace Wilson.) There are a few concessions to modern times — Mike Teevee (Matthew Boney, alternating with Grace Sawicki) is now addicted to video gaming and smart phones along with television, while Mr. Salt promotes his company’s website and 800 number. Still, all the anticipated moments and catastrophes played out just as in the book and film versions, with Violet (Anna Grace Boney, alternating with Blakesley Rhett) turning violet, Veruca wanting an Oompa-Loompa now, and Augustus learning too late to stay away from the banks of the chocolate river.
Special effects that can be safely staged with children performing live are necessarily much simpler and less spectacular than what can be accomplished on screen, but scenic designer and technical director Danny Harrington made do with available resources, and the results were satisfying.
Name-brand musicals that have broad family appeal (Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Tarzan the Musical) have been a summer tradition at Town for a number of years, and director/choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs has helmed the last 11, so at this point, creating a fun musical experience for children of all ages must be second nature for her. By my count, the program indicated 17 different combinations of siblings and/or parents and children performing together in the show, lending an additional level of meaning to the term “family-friendly musical.”
All told, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka provided a pleasantly entertaining journey into a fantastical realm of chocolate-covered imagination.
What:Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka
Where:Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When:Through Aug. 6
Price:$25 ($20 seniors, full-time college students and active-duty military; $15 youth 17 and under)