Empress - Willy Wonka - Poster

Playing thru August 20, 2011

MAGNA — Willy Wonka Jr., directed by Glen Carpenter, is based on Roald Dahl’s classic tale.  Charlie Bucket (Travis Hymas) lives a humble life in poverty until he finds one of five golden tickets that grants him an exclusive tour through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  Willy Wonka (Luke Johnson) and his servants, the Oompa Loompas, teach us a moral as each of the children give in to delicious temptations.

I admit that I had low expectations as I sat in my seat.  Maybe that’s because children’s theater is meant to entertain children – not adults.  Thankfully, the first five minutes of the show were enough to change my mind.  The large chorus of children sang beautifully throughout the whole show, and danced much better than expected.  Actually, they were stronger dancers and more in sync than I’ve seen from several older casts.  I can’t help but thank music director/choreographer Andrea Fife for an impressive job.

In the opening song, Willy Wonka invites the audience to enter a world of imagination.  I can’t think of a more appropriate way to engage kids in theater.  The production kept that theme strong throughout the show.  It was very fun to see kids acting as adults – especially the kids playing Charlie’s grandparents.  They brought hilarious personality to their roles that made me think twice about how adults act.

The set was bright, colorful, and fun, with a couple ladders leading up to the platform up above.  My favorite set piece was the pink candy boat, which looked fantastic.  The magic of the show really happened when I found myself imagining exactly what the performers intended.  The actors engaged the audience’s imagination so well that to me, Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Zachary Linnet) really flew, and Violet (Samantha Arsuffi) actually turned into a blueberry!

I don’t mean to give a sugar-coated review.  There were a few things that really bothered me.  My number one complaint has to do with the sound.  I’m not sure what system limitations the theater has concerning sound, but it was the most distracting part of the show.  I was close to the stage and still found myself straining to hear most of the show.  Also, the show’s energy level seemed to drop early on, and it unfortunately didn’t recover.  There were only a few characters who didn’t seem to be on auto-pilot at one point or another – hopefully the performers improve on this before the end of the run.

The principle actors each did a good job at portraying their characters’ personalities.  Travis Hymans fit the part of Charlie beautifully.  I wished Willy Wonka’s voice was a little less tenor and a little more bass.  It was hard to hear his great voice when he was reaching for the lower notes.  Some of the best acting came from Mike Teavee (Warren Tharp) and the Beauregardes (Arsuffi, K’Lynn Keddington). They told their characters’ stories well, and were consistent throughout the show. Also, their energy was both refreshing and appropriate.  My favorite performance, though, was from Reeve Sikalis as Veruca Salt. She projected her voice and could be heard clearly, despite my earlier complaints about sound. She also pulled off the emotional dynamic of her character very well.

Call me nostalgic, but I’m glad the production showcased all the familiar songs from one of my favorite childhood movies.  This is definitely a great show to bring your children to, especially if they are familiar with the 1971 movie version of this story.  The production quality wasn’t the best, but it was certainly better than I ever would have expected from a group of kids.  Who knows?  You may find the same world of pure imagination I did.

Willy Wonka Jr. plays at the Empress Theatre (9104 W., 2700 S., Magna) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays through August 20 at 7:30 PM and on August 20 at 2:30 PM. Tickets are $9. For more information, visit www.empresstheatre.com.
Empress - Willy Wonka - Image 1

The cast of Willy Wonka, Jr.