by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
It will be the land of candy and fantasy on stage at OPCT for the month of February with the opening of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, a musical based on the children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” All performances are in the theatre at 2900 Moody Ave, in Orange Park. Call 276-2599 for reservations or visit www.opct.org.
The Dual Critics must confess that we have never read the book, or seen either of the two movies based on the story. We thoroughly enjoyed our introduction to the zany characters in the world of Willy Wonka. We were especially enamored with the large cast of children and young adults, the budding stars of many future shows in local community theatres. Director Vicki Lowe and Musical Director Brenda Cohn have added a dozen or so seasoned actors to this cast of youngsters, and served up a delectable treat for everyone, on the stage, and in the audience.
The adapted musical stage version by Leslie Briscusse and Tim McDonald has much the same plot as the first film, released in 1971, and uses music and lyrics from that version written by Leslie Bricusse and the late Anthony Newley.
The plot tells the story of Charlie Bucket, performed by the talented and always smiling Brandon Leporati. Charlie receives the final golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory with four other children from around the world. A number of roles have been double cast; when you see the show, Charlie may be alternately played by Henry Zimmer.
The other four children who have won tickets could be called bratty and obnoxious. (Providing a subtle message to the young members of the audience; it pays to be nice).The first winner is a German boy, Augustus Gloop (Harrison Allen), a teenager with an insatiable appetite for sweets and chocolate. Augustus and his mother (Sally DeBorde), the cooks (Tama Barrett, Elizabeth DiGeorgio and Dana Dillard) and TV announcer Phineous Trout (Tim DeBorde) sing the funniest song in the show, “Eat More!”
The second winner Veruca (played by Praniti Kudre or Sarah DiGeorgio), is a Brazilian girl with a haughty attitude. The third is Violet (played by Grace Gray or Morgan Harrison), who chews gum incessantly. The fourth is Mike Teavee (played by Jesse James or Ronald Ferraco) who is obsessed with his smart phone, television, and video games.
The four bedridden grandparents were hilarious and audience favorites in scenes where they bickered and bantered among themselves. The always funny Fred Gatlin is Grandpa George, hard of hearing, who twists everything he hears. Elizabeth DeGeogio is Grandma Georgiana, Brenda Cohn is Grandma Josephine and Stan Mesnick is Grandpa Joe. Mesnick is the grandpa who accompanies Charlie on the tour and shows off one of the best singing voices in the cast in a duet with Charlie called “We can Fly.”
There are twelve scenes in Act I, all wonderfully narrated, by a Narrator of course, played with engaging sophistication by Michael J. Moody Jr.
Lots of other interesting things happen in the first half of the show, but things really get going in Act II when we arrive at the chocolate factory and finally get to met Willy Wonka.
The honor of playing the eccentric Willy Wonka goes to actor/singer/dancer Joseph Walz, and the choice could not have been better. Walz is a very much in-demand actor both for leading roles in musicals (The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum) as well as serious dramatic roles (including Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Death of a Salesman, and Art). You will be wild about Willy before the final curtain.
As much as we liked all the characters, the factory helpers known as Oompa-Loompas were probably our favorites. The very young 3rd and 4th graders were a delight with their orange skin and green and yellow (and pink and blue and red) hair. Most were on the stage for the first time and performed admirably. Members of the Oompa-Loompa gang included Nataley Guetherman, Wade Taylor, Michaela Walz, Anne-Charles Zimmer, Allie Beaudrot, Isabelle Gardella, and Chandelyn Rene Moody.
Langdon Zimmer and Stephen Lowe were Charlie’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bucket. Steve Cohn is the Candy Man, who sells Wonka’s Chocolate Bars from a street cart. He also gets to sing the only hit song from the show “The Candyman,” one of the signature songs of the late Sammy Davis Jr.
Others in this large cast included: Judy Bumgarner, Steve Conrad, Kelly Harrison, Emily Piatt, Elise T. Carlson, Aimee Verus, Shyla Wimes, Jordan Vondette, Scarlett Johnson, Rachael Rubright, Brenna Shuman, Jennifer Gernhard, Meagan Martin, Jennifer Rochefort, Sarah Pentecost, Kristen Walsh and Kyle Lowe as the puppeteer.
The set design by David Wells and Vicki Lowe used an open stage in many scenes with special effects behind the actors to augment the action. The family settings included a Germanic parlor, a Brazilian room with a flowered carpet and palm trees, a home in Georgia with rocking chairs, and a sleek California space in black and white. The many rooms of the factory were suggested with large colorful panels. And then, there was that boat that carried Willy and Charlie and Grandpa Joe along the River of Chocolate, and even some psychedelic whirligigs. At times, the aisles were used to expand the stage. The TV screen up over the stage on the left was delightful, supplementing the action on the stage and created by Connie Senkowski, who also choreographed the show assisted by Antonio Ferguson.
The many, many, costumes, made possible in part by a generous donation by The Tom Nehl Fund of The Community Foundation, were created Regina Manning and Cecilia Emmert. They ranged from kids clothes to formal wear for adults, and helped define and illuminate the roles of the characters in settings that encompassed the extremes of poverty and wealth.
The music was played to perfection by a band tucked away backstage and led by Charlie Mann on keyboard, JC Cochran on percussion, Heather Baerga playing flute and Mac MacGlothin playing clarinet.
This production was a team effort, a very large team of volunteers, and we wish we could mention them all. Kudos especially to UNF student, Kristen Walsh, as stage manager; keeping track of forty-seven actors is challenging. Production Manger Barbara Wells, who appeared on the Watch Hound Cable show to promote the production, coordinated many aspects of the show, including turning the lobby into a candy store.
This show will delight anyone between the ages of five and ninety-five, but call quickly as several shows have been sold out. Every seat in this very intimate theatre is a good one. It is indeed a show that is fun for the entire family. Don’t miss it.
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM