The Candy Man Can

From L to R: Bodie Kuzminski, Lennon McGuigan, Jay Hanson, Brinlee Roeder, Lily Sanow, Pieper Roeder star in ‘Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka’

Reclusive confectioner, Willy Wonka, holds a contest to find an heir to his chocolate factory.  Through the discovery of golden tickets hidden in Wonka candies, five children arrive at the factory for a fantastical tour and a series of morality tests to determine who is worthy to succeed the legendary candymaker.  This is Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and is currently playing at Scottish Rite Masonic Center under the auspices of Rave On Productions.

I’m glad to see Rave On experimenting with their content.  After a series of highly successful maturely themed rock musicals, Rave On does a 180 with a family show highlighting the students of the McGuigan Arts Academy.

Now this is a youth version of Willy Wonka so it runs a bit shorter than the traditional version as well as making a few changes to the story.  For example, in the youth version, only the children take the tour of Wonka’s factory.  The adults are left out.  In either case, Leslie Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald’s adaptation of the tale blends Dahl’s novel with the famed 1971 film.  It’s a faithful retelling, though I wish the writers had gone with the film’s climax which, surprisingly, is superior to the novel’s climax.  Bricusse and Anthony Newley also have written a series of fun songs, some original and some lifted directly from the film.

Kimberly Faith Hickman really provides a fine piece of direction and I especially applaud her work with the children.  Their work ranged from promising to excellent with some providing performances that were as good or better than work I’ve seen performed by some adults.  Hickman generates a real sense of whimsy and fun and tosses in a bit of theatre magic along the way with a brisk pacing that just makes the show fly.

Outside of the title character, the adults take a back seat in this production though Brandon Fisher does get to shine with an eccentric Grandpa Joe who fills Charlie’s head with tales of Wonka’s factory and acts as a bulwark to Charlie’s disappointments with “Cheer Up, Charlie”.

But this show is ultimately about the kids and the featured characters admirably carried the weight of the show.  Lennon McGuigan is clearly having a ball, not to mention being round as one, as Augustus Gloop and adds just the right level of theatricality with his number, “I Eat More”.  Pieper Roeder is snidely competitive as Violet Beauregarde who is drawn to gum like a moth to a flame.  Bodie Kuzminski is not only obnoxiously disrespectful as Mike Teavee, but adult actors can take lessons in projection and articulation from him. Lily Sanow has a bright future in theatre ahead of her as evidenced with her turn as Veruca Salt.  Sanow was perfect as the snotty, spoiled rich girl who demands catering to her every whim.  Sanow also has a pretty and powerful voice as she belts out Veruca’s personal anthem, “I Want it Now”.

Brinlee Roeder is very effective as Charlie Bucket.  Roeder brings a real sincerity and decency to the good-hearted Charlie who constantly encourages the family to “Be Positive” even in the most dire of circumstances.  Roeder also has a nice singing voice, shining in “Flying” and reducing the audience to tears of laughter in “Burping Song”. 

For a guy only acting for the second time in his life, Jay Hanson has some potent instincts for storytelling.  Hanson beautifully underplays the role of Willy Wonka, giving him a quiet impishness and a natural sardonic nature useful for bantering with the naughty brats in his tour group.  I was especially impressed with Hanson’s turn as an unnamed candy seller (implied to be an incognito Wonka) who seems to have a bit of magic about him as he helps Charlie obtain the final golden ticket.

Hanson’s singing is in its usual fine form with stellar turns in “Pure Imagination” and a creepy performance of “There’s No Knowing”.

Matthew McGuigan’s musical direction is in rare form.  No pun intended, but he doesn’t kid around with the music.  He keeps it light and fun, but the tunes also have underpinnings of rock with a smidgen of jazz that just gave it a unique and pleasing flavor.  Carly Frolio’s costumes are right on the mark, suiting the personalities of the characters and hearkening back to the film’s depiction of said characters.  I especially liked Wonka’s outlandish outfit of green pants with purple coat, vest, and brown hat and her Oompa Loompa outfits which conjured images of 90s hip hop performers with colorful stocking hats, black shirts, suspenders, and long colored striped socks.  Kate Whitecotton well utilizes the backdrops at Scottish Rite to take us from the poor home of the Buckets to the magnificent innards of Wonka’s factory.  Kyle Toth’s lights help to support the show with his LSD inspired colors for the “There’s No Knowing” number being particularly effective.  His technical skills were also quite impressive especially with the transformation of Violet into a giant blueberry.

There were some technical squoinks as the microphones would go from being so sensitive that I could hear normal breathing to going so soft that I’d lose singing to the instruments, but the cast didn’t let these slight bobbles have an impact on their performances.

If you’re a fan of the film and/or novel, you’re likely going to be a fan of this show as well.  The children put on a fine production with a little help from the adults and you’re going to have a scrumdiddelyumptious time.

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka plays at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center through July 31.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased at https://www.theomahaseries.com/willywonka.  Scottish Rite Masonic Center is located at 202 S 20th St in Omaha, NE.

Photo Credit: Rave On Productions