- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

The bells and whistles are of the dime store variety in “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” the Kennedy Center’s low-tech take on Mr. Dahl’s classic book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the nicely nasty, electric Kool-Aid-tinged 1971 cult film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

So don’t expect any “Lion King” or “Wicked”-style million-dollar special effects or extravaganza song-and-dance numbers in this modest, one-hour adaptation directed by Graham Whitehead.

Its “gee-whiz” factor is limited to day-glo Oompa Loomas (who look as though they’re fashioned out of overgrown Tinker Toys) on wheels. The scenery mainly consists of portable cubes, which stand in for many of the fantastical wonders a group of unruly children encounter during a tour of Willie Wonka’s (Stephen F. Schmidt) labyrinthine candy-making plant.

The audience is asked to use their collective imagination to believe that, for example, a skein of lustrous fabric is actually the most delicious (and quick-hardening) chocolate in the world, or that a ladder is an invisible aid enabling one of the children, Charlie Bucket (Flordelino Lagundino) to fly. Some of the effects work beautifully, such as the gum-cracking Violet (Monique I. Midgette) turning into a giant, bouncy blueberry after she helps herself to a forbidden piece of bubblegum and the gorging Augustus (Diego Prieto) becoming an instant lollipop after he pitches headfirst into a vat of chocolate.

At other moments, however, the show resembles a school pageant stitched together with Scotch tape and poster board.

Children 5 and younger seemed to fall under the downscale spell of the show, applauding wildly when underprivileged Charlie Bucket won the fifth and final “golden ticket” that gave him access to the candy factory and free chocolate for life.

There’s also the matter of the writers feeling the need to inject a lesson into Mr. Dahl’s story, which primarily concerns the satisfying comeuppance of four rather bratty children, the products of overindulgent parents. In this musical version, the character of Charlie (and his poverty-riddled family) is saddled with a “think positive” mantra and a moral outlook suggesting that even the poor can have good self-esteem. The lesson is about as welcome as a turnip in your Hershey bar.

Much of the time the no-frills approach works, but this could be attributed to the gifted cast of seven, who play various characters as well as operate puppets (cunningly crafted by designer Marie Schneggenburger).

As the mysterious and capricious Willy Wonka, Mr. Schmidt sets the tone with his buttercream voice, commanding presence and tendency to emote as if he’s singing Sondheim, which brings out the darker glints in Mr. Dahl’s story.

The rest of the cast also gives “Willy Wonka” a sparkling energy. One of the many standouts is Jeffrey Scott Bailey, whose breakdancing MTV moves in the role of Mike Teevee brought down the house. Meghan Touey makes a suitably spoiled and obnoxious Veruca Salt, and Toni Rae Brotons’ distinctive, sweet vocals lend the right amount of sugar to a number of roles.

Better production values would have helped “Willy Wonka,” but that’s not the entire solution. It needs a stronger dose of Willy Wonka’s eccentric, inspired imagination.

***

WHAT: “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, adapted for the stage by Mr. Bricusse and Tim McDonald.

WHERE: Theater Lab, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 26.

TICKETS: $14

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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