CTM's "Willy Wonka" Could be Sweeter
Ever since Roald Dahl came out with his fudge-topped, lollipop-filled, taffy-packed book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, generations of kids have fantasized about winning a golden ticket and touring the magical headquarters of Willy Wonka’s candy bar empire -- and maybe even becoming the factory’s next owner.
Right now young people and families can see that wish come true for the kind hearted kid Charlie Bucket (a terrific Walker Stephenson), whose family’s meager income sends him to bed with a lot more bowls of cabbage stew than chocolatey treats. Helmed by Children’s Theater of Madison’s Artistic Associate and Director of Education Erica Berman, CTM’s 90-minute musical, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, has a few sugar plums in store for audiences in the Overture’s Playhouse Theater, running through May 12.
The story of Charlie’s journey to the chocolate factory is well known: It has inspired two movies and a recent Broadway production in addition to this version, which is tailored to young audiences. That means expectations are high. Hoping for a parade of sweets from a Candyland game come to life, crossed with the magic of a Pixar movie and a cast of bizarre characters that could have come straight from Oz, audiences leaned forward in their seats on the show’s opening weekend, waiting for the magic to begin.
Turns out, it’s kind of a long wait. The entire first act focuses on Charlie’s nearly destitute family, most of whom are bedridden, and speculation about who will win the legendary golden tickets. (Spoiler alert -- yes, Charlie does win one, but it takes many, many attempts.)
Although the other lucky kids turn out to be gluttonous, spoiled, disobedient, demanding, or distracted, Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (a delightful Lee H. Waldhart) eagerly take their places in line for the experience of a lifetime at the beginning of Act 2. But it turns out that’s kind of a let down too.
While Steve Barnes’s initial set depicting the tiny cold-water flat where the Bucket extended family resides is fleshed out and clever -- with walls made of doors, topped with a carefully carved city skyline -- the inner workings of Wonka Inc. look like the first draft of practically any industrial plant. A pop-up card that fails to pop, the audience was waiting to be delighted and surprised by candy-topia, but it never happened.
Similarly, Stephen Scott Wormley plays a nice but bland candy shop owner in the first half of the show, and then is supposed to transform into the impresario of chocolate, Willy Wonka in Act 2. But the costume change didn’t imbue the actor with any of the energy or bravado this eccentric character demands. Wormley has a pleasant singing voice and acquitted himself well of the only hummable song in the show -- “The Candy Man,” but for an astonishing, almost other-worldly candy inventor, he’s neither menacing nor charismatic.
The young performers who play the various brats who tour the factory with Charlie were often difficult to understand -- either mumbling their lines softly or overpowering their mics with their shrill shreiks and few of them possessed the vocal range necessary to nail their songs.
The notable exceptions were Charlie himself (a bright eyed and confident Stephenson) and the five young people who formed the creepy Oompa Loompa chorus (Donovan Lonsdale, Malea Niesen, Meena Riesen, Pippa Schroeder, and Kendall Schumacher). Dressed in matching chocolate brown overalls and green striped shirts and socks, the creatures who worked all of Wonka’s marvelous machines executed intricate choreography with precision and boldly sang their haunting chorus between the “unfortunate accidents” that befell the golden ticket holders as they toured the facility.
The Oompa Loompa gang also provided hundreds of soap bubbles in a whimsical scene that propelled Charlie and his grandfather high in the air, after sipping some supercharged soda. But they couldn’t make the other forbidden interactions with Wonka products surprising or all that interesting. Audiences immediately and easily saw the stage mechanics behind being swallowed by a chocolate river or shoved into a nut chute. Even the costume that was supposed to enlarge to enormous blueberry size malfunctioned during the performance I saw, leaving Violet Beauregarde only partially inflated.
Far from satisfying our sweet tooth, the production feels flat as a Necco Wafer and half as colorful.