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Carnegie’s “Willy Wonka” is Pure Imagination

Review by Jack Crumley of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka: The Carnegie

The annual family-friendly show at the Carnegie in Covington has begun, and this season’s production of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is a sweet treat for kids of all ages. This production is an adaptation of both the original book and the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder. It’s been adapted by Timothy McDonald and Leslie Bricusse, and Bricusse wrote all the music from the movie. It keeps all the songs you know, like “Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man” while also adding a few new numbers, mostly character-based tunes for the different kids who tour the chocolate factory. (Fun fact: author Roald Dahl was so upset by the songs added and changes made to the film adaptation that he disowned it.)

Plot-wise, this show keeps the story from the film: young and poor Charlie Bucket is one of five lucky children to win a tour of the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory, led by the even more mysterious and whimsical Willy Wonka. As the tour progresses, the other children fall victim to their own bad attitudes, poor parenting, and misbehaviors until there’s only Charlie left. In the end, Wonka reveals it was all a test and Charlie wins ownership of the factory itself.

In a word, this production is efficient. The play zips from one song and one scene to another, the kids and teens in the ensemble handle multiple backup roles, and rotating set pieces help make the most of Carnegie’s relatively small stage area.

Praise goes to the production team. Tyler Gabbard’s scenes have to follow some of the memorable set pieces in the movie, like an open field full of candy decorations and a chocolate river. Fittingly, the show relies on a fair amount of “pure imagination” from the audience to pull off some of the more extravagant moments. The wild boat ride, Charlie and Grandpa Joe floating after drinking soda, and the elevator ride in the sky all call on the audience to help fill in the more practical gaps. In many cases, this is helped along by Larry Csernik’s excellent (and colorful!) lighting design, specifically, the use of black light and neons. All the songs are sung to a pre-recorded music track, and I’m happy to say that Music Director Xan Jeffery’s cues and Eric Bardes sounds all hit perfectly with Bardes running the board. I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a “Special Effects” credit for a Carnegie show, and Christopher Martin’s work made the special moments jump out, complementing the work from departments. Special shout out also for Josh Newman’s costume design. Every one of the main characters’ looks was a perfect homage to the way they were captured on screen without being just straight copies. Director/Producer/Choreographer Maggie Perrino and Production Manager Bleu Pellman should be very proud of the entire production team and crew’s work.

The cast is led by Dain Alan Paige as Willy Wonka, who–when he’s not leading the tour or letting a naughty child teach themselves a lesson–also serves as an omniscient narrator for the audience. Paige, as Wonka, also goes undercover as the local candy man in Act I. He’s actually there when Charlie gets the fifth golden ticket, which changes Charlie’s victory from being rooted in just dumb luck to explicitly showing someone who noticed Charlie’s kindness all along. Paige has a clear crisp singing voice that has no problem hitting the high notes or projecting enough for everyone to hear.

In fact, all of the singing in this show is spot on. Cade C Harvey plays Charlie Bucket with all the earnestness and honesty the role calls for. He has a mature sounding voice for such a youthful look. His voice also blends well with Mr Bucket (played by Brian Anderson) when they sing “Think Positive.” And the whole Bucket family’s rendition of “Cheer Up Charlie” sounded nice as well.

The other kids on the Wonka tour all had good voices, and good looks (some of whom were a bit more updated from 1971). Augustus Gloop (Christian Arias)’s new character intro song was a fun, Bavarian-style tune about eating. Gabrielle Tollefson’s Veruca Salt went from posing smile to screaming demand effortlessly. The character of Violet Beauregarde, played by Laura Dinn, had a more interesting relationship with her mother (Leslie Hitch, coming off her hilarious turn as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein at Covedale) than the way the Violet of the movie was portrayed with her father. Also, Dinn gets to have one of the better special effects/costume combos when she eats the gum that tastes like a meal and inflates into a blueberry. The role of Mike Teavee is updated the most. Instead of a cowboy-obsessed kid, Liam Sweeney’s Mike is more of an all-around, hipper, media consumer. His character has traded in fringe, snakeskin boots, and cap guns for denim, sunglasses, and an iPad. Kudos again to the production team for the way they handled the scene where he teleports into a TV.

Also, both the members of the Teen Ensemble and the Youth Ensemble did a great job. Like I said, the teens had multiple costume changes, and they all sounded great and brought a great energy to their group scenes. The Youth Ensemble gets to play, arguably, the most memorable characters from the movie: the Oompa Loompas! Every time one of the kids acts out on the Wonka tour, these eight actors come marching out to dance and sing the most haunting melody of the whole show, and they did a great job.

The only thing I was hungry for more of (other than candy the teens tossed into the audience in the opening number) was Paige’s Wonka. Not that I was looking for a two hour Gene Wilder impression, but Willy Wonka is such a BIG character with such tremendous swings in tone. I wanted him to be more colorful than his bright purple jacket.

For being in such a limited space, Willy Wonka at the Carnegie brings the charm and magic of the world that Roald Dahl created on the page in the 1960s and the music and color from cast and crew of the film in the 1970s. It’s a show recommended for all ages, but there are only so many tickets (in this case, they’re blue.) Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka plays Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday now through January 28. Tickets are available here.