As we settle into our seats in the black box theatre of Other Voices in Frederick, Md, to watch Willy Wonka the Musical, it’s hard not to think about the late Gene Wilder and his iconic performance in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He is ingrained in our collective memories as Wonka (sorry Johnny Depp) even among the younger generation as he forms the backdrop to a never ending number of internet memes.
Sean Byrne has the task of making the role of Wonka his own and he opens act one with a sincere rendition of Pure Imagination, dressed very much like Wilder in a purple jacket, brown hat and bow tie. With the majority of the set hidden by flats our imaginations begin to wonder what Set Designer, Lee Hebb, has in store for us behind them. Before that answer is revealed, however, the whole cast is before us for the Golden Age of Chocolate. It’s a slightly clumsy start with the large ensemble cramped into the restricted space at the front of the stage. As the flats transition to the wings the Bucket house is exposed – a truncated bed, home to the four Grandparents, a table at which Charlie’s parents prepare the daily cabbage soup, and between them a white screen that is used to project an image of a window. The latter is an unnecessary set piece that looks out of place in the overall design.
With the costumes of Wonka and the Bucket family (and many references throughout the show), it is clear we are intended to be in the same era as the original film. However, as Charlie leaves the house and is joined by other children of the town for the The Candy Man, things start to become confusing. The old fashioned cart selling the Wonka bars is surrounded by children wearing modern day attire and it gives the impression that the younger members of the ensemble arrived too late to the theatre and didn’t have time to change. Unfortunately it’s the start of many moments where the Costume Designer(s) and Director, Susan Thornton, don’t appear to have a consistent vision of when the show is taking place.
Reporter Phineous Trout (Thomas Bricker) introduces us to the various golden ticket winners and their parents via the big screen high above our heads stage right, and the action transitions (albeit with some questionable continuity) from some very stylish prerecorded video sections to the stage. In between, we have the one major choreographed number with Charlie (Jacob Holcomb) and Mr. Bucket (James Funkhouser). The relationship between the two is genuine and believable throughout the show but the dance feels out of character (especially for Charlie) and the execution was out of sync for both.
Act one closes with Charlie leading the cast in I’ve Got a Golden Ticket. All the ensemble numbers sound good under the music direction of Cathie Porter Borden, but lack the blend of harmonies to really elevate them to the next level.
Act two has the challenge of transporting us around the chocolate factory and it’s a challenge the show accepts and largely succeeds in overcoming. A painted backdrop of pipes is complimented by an actual pipe that spans the width of the stage above the actors heads. As Augustus Gloop (a disappointingly slim Andrew Seaton) sneezes his way into the chocolate river, the pipe is lit to show him at first stuck, and then shooting across the stage in impressive fashion.
The second act is handled expertly by Thornton. The addition of a second tier, lit in isolation and featuring the colorful Oompa Loompas and the latest rule breaking child, facilitate the set changes on the lower level to the next factory room, and creates a flow and momentum that the first act lacked.
The children all have their opportunities to shine as temptations expose their character flaws. Sophia Carliss gives a strong showing as the gum chewing Violet Beauregarde but the performance of the night comes from Kaitlin McCallion as she oozes attitude every moment she’s on stage as the spoiled Veruca Salt. While some of the other solo vocals are inconsistent in pitch, McCallion’s rendition of I want it Now is the best of the night.
There are other technical successes – the bad nut routine for Veruca and her father ending in their descent down a chute and the plucking of the six inch Mike Teavee from the TV screen are both pleasingly achieved. The white screen reappears and is used far more effectively to show Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Jeff Wine) floating among the bubbles – although a little actor motivation for going behind the screen would have gone a long way.
The lighting design of Steve Knapp and Jim McGuire really enhances the second act and this is exemplified as the upper balcony becomes an elevator and the stage a sea of lights as the show reaches its’ climax.
Willy Wonka the Musical is not as vocally impressive as you would hope and the inconsistency in the costuming and props are muddled choices that prevent us from really buying in to the first act. However, this is a demanding show to pull off in this space and the story telling after the intermission is done well and is thoroughly enjoyable.
#tothepoint Rating: 59/100
You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.
Ticket Price: $20
Value Review: -$1