OREM — As a piece of theatre for young audiences, the SCERA’s production of Willy Wonka is a success. For everyone else, though, it is a show worth skipping.
Willy Wonka tells the story of young Charlie Bucket, a boy who lives in extreme poverty with his parents and grandparents. When Charlie wins a ticket to a tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, he embarks on a magical journey that reveals his character.
If the synopsis sounds familiar, it is because the script by Leslie Briscusse and Tim McDonald is based closely on the 1971 film version of the story (which is based, in turn, on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). While a few songs (with music and lyrics by Leslie Briscusse and Anthony Newley) have been added, the show is stubbornly faithful to the movie. Little is new, and none of it adds depth or creativity to the story. The whole show feels derivative and like a soulless attempt to capitalize on the popular film versions of the same story.
The script was one of the most disappointing I have encountered in musical theatre. The exposition in the first 15 minutes is delivered in the clumsiest ways possible: as a direct explanation to the audience, or as characters telling one another things they already know. After the story gets rolling, most of the dialogue is concerned with moving the story forward, and character development is almost zero.
The score is little more than filler. The new songs do nothing to reveal new information about characters or the story. “I Eat More,” “I See It All on TV,” and “I Want It Now” are especially guilty in this regard. All those songs do is have their characters sing about what the audience had just been told.
For a local theatre critic, “blame the creators and praise the locals” is often an easy way to writing a mixed or negative review. But it applies here because this cast worked hard to elevate the material of Willy Wonka. The best in this regard was Thompson Scribner as the reporter Phineous Trout. The character is unifying force of the first act, and Scribner has the enthusiasm to handle the frequent transitions between scenes and moving from speaking to singing. Nathanael Mildenstein is the perfect brat as Mike Teavee, and his big personality filled the massive amphitheater. Mark Buffington and Bo Jaqueline Chester played the father-daughter duo of Mr. Salt and Veruca Salt. Both moved with the confidence and mannerisms of the uber-wealthy and were believable as people who were too rich for their own good.
Erik Schaumann played the title character with a spring in his step and a goofy affability. His performance is not a Gene Wilder or (heaven forbid) Johnny Depp imitation, though. His ease and smile made the dark, dismissive lines about children being harmed seem cheery and comical. As Charlie Bucket, Alex Stringham showed the most emotion in his gleeful performance of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” was the emotional highlight of the first act, though Charlie’s sense of wonder seemed to diminish as his tour through the factory wore on.
The ensemble in Willy Wonka was disciplined, especially when executing Dani LeCompte‘s precision choreography. The dedication of the ensemble is particularly impressive when considering that they were almost all children; some amateur adult casts could learn from this group’s crisp dancing and eager singing. “The Candy Man,” fourth “Oompa Loompa” rendition, and “Golden Age of Chocolate” were great showcases of these kids’ talents.
Julie Bonifay had the tough job of directing this production. Most of the first act is a drag as Charlie experiences one setback after another. The interactions among the Bucket family are particularly static, but scenes in a “shack” where the majority of the characters stay in a big bed are not inherently theatrical. Still, I wish that Bonifay had helped her actors in Charlie’s family build more emotional connections among each other. Because these connections were weak, the tenderness of “Cheer Up Charlie” towards the end of the second act seemed surprising. However, Bonifay’s talents shined in the second act, where the complex scenes in the chocolate factory were well blocked and orderly.
Costume designer Kelsey Seaver‘s costume designs were a delight in the production. The ensemble was dressed in modern street clothes, but the supporting and leading characters were dressed in ways showed they were special. I especially loved the texturing in Willy Wonka’s suit and the elegant clothing for the wealthy Salts. As lighting designer, Elizabeth Griffiths had to deal with the sun washing out the lighting during the first act. But in the second act she created a rainbow of popping colors that matched Shawn M. Herrera‘s vibrant set for the chocolate factory.
SCERA’s Willy Wonka is a production with contrasts: the drab Charlie meeting the vibrant world Willy Wonka, the mix of iconic and banal songs, and the impressive work of the local cast dealing with a pedestrian script and score. Unfortunately, none of these elements really mesh into a cohesive show. Willy Wonka will be a delight to children, and families will enjoy the outing after months of lockdown and isolation. But I really can’t recommend the show to other theatre audience segments in Utah County, like seniors, dating college students, or arts aficionados.