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Carnegie’s “Wonka” Satisfies with Sweet Nostalgia

Review by Hannah Gregory of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Carnegie Theatre
Even before the show starts, there is a sense that Willy Wonka aims to satisfy your taste buds while simultaneously claiming your heart. The bar includes sweet treats, a themed drink, and a candy raffle from Bellevue staple Witt’s End Candy Emporium––a well executed collaboration between two local organizations.  
 
From the moment the show begins––with dollops of color illuminating the house and bubbles magically floating into the crowd––smiles are imminent and remain so for the duration of the performance, which clocks in at a clean two hours. The story is a familiar one, close to many of our hearts––five lucky children win a contest by finding a golden ticket in a candy bar wrapper and are subsequently swept into Willy Wonka’s mysterious Chocolate Factory for a tour. As naughty children disappear one by one, the only one left at the end of the tour is our hero, Charlie Bucket.
 
The show begins with Willy Wonka (played by Dain Alan Paige) onstage alone, giving the audience exposition about the tale that is about to unfold. Wonka stays with us throughout the show as our narrator, an interesting choice for writers Leslie Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald. During the “The Golden Age of Chocolate,” children from the show’s ensemble gleefully make their way through the theatre, tossing candy at patrons. I loved it, but be aware that sugary (and totally edible) elements might be (gently) hurled your way.  
 
We move along through the show, enjoying classics such as “The Candyman,” a highlight that conveys the pure joy of sinking your teeth into candy; “Cheer Up Charlie,” which boasts some lovely ending harmony; and Veruca Salt’s tenacious tirade “I Want It Now.” (A side note: The Carnegie utilized tracks for this production––meaning the music was all pre-recorded. While this keeps the show clipping along, it can also prevent the scenes from hitting their stride, leaving the actors and the audience feeling a bit cheated from emotional moments.) Other songs aren’t so familiar, like “I Eat More,” which was hindered by the track, making breathing and phrasing a task for performers and “On TV,” another quick problematic ditty that left actors switching octaves due to the song falling in an odd key.
 
The show is fast paced, keeping the audience on their toes, but leaving characters feeling a bit lackluster––a fault that falls on the writers’ shoulders. Though Cade C. Harvey, who plays Charlie, boasts impressive vocal talents, Charlie’s emotional journey plays like an afterthought to the plot; we never see any true sadness or disappointment from the young Bucket when he is foiled twice before finding the final golden ticket. However, Harvey will no doubt flourish as he grows as an actor. He has a likeable onstage presence and pairs well with Grandpa Joe (played by Don Wong, who brings a scrappy jolliness to his character).   
 
Other standout actors include Dain Alan Paige, whose Wonka was dazzlingly unique and refreshing, pervading the character with a powerful warmth and whimsy, as well as Sean Mette as Phineas Trout, who nailed the news anchor persona and was simply a joy to watch. Liam Sweeney as Mike Teavee and Laura Dinn as Violet Bauregarde boast great acting chops and commitment to character; keep an eye on these two, as their talent promises that they will surely continue to grace Cincinnati stages. The winners round out with Christian Arias as Augustus Gloop and Gabrielle Tollefson as Veruca Salt, both solid performers. As an ensemble, from the youth ensemble to the bedridden grandparents, the entire cast works incredibly well together. The final tableaus of Act I and Act II are both visually and aurally beautiful, full, and rich––I only wish there could have been more moments of full ensemble singing and interaction.
 
The set, designed by Tyler Gabbard, effectively transfers us from Charlie’s drab and cramped home to the colorful world of Wonka’s candy factory. Larry Csernik tackles the lighting, which is magical, especially during the opening sequence and the famous boat scene. Costumes by Josh Newman are visually striking but at times don’t make sense, particularly in the case of Mike Teavee, whose ensemble embodies the contemporary California teen, and his mother (a hilarious Emily Martin), who is dressed to the nines in 1960’s garb. Idiosyncrasies like these can be confusing for an audience member––though a hunch is that the goal was to convey the parents stuck in old fashioned ways.
 
All in all, Willy Wonka, directed by The Carnegie’s fearless and bubbly Theatre Director Maggie Perrino, is as much for kids as it is for adults looking to stroll down memory lane. A few lighting elements may scare children, but nothing that should prevent them from enjoying the show. Bundle up and relish a wonderful night out at The Carnegie. Willy Wonka is running now through January 28. Snag your tickets by calling 859-957-1940 or by visiting thecarnegie.com.