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‘Willy Wonka’ is family fare audiences will enjoy

It’s billed as “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” but don’t expect the darkness of Dahl’s original book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” This is not the musical that opened on London’s West End or Broadway last year. However, if you loved the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, you will recognize it, because this Music Theatre International script, “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” adapted by Leslie Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald, contains the Bricusse and Anthony Newley songs you’ll remember. This is family fare and the kids will love it.

The show was produced by the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company and presented by the city of Henderson. So let’s begin by disclosing there are no programs. I’m not sure which entity made the decision, but it isn’t a fair one. Proper credit cannot be made to deserving individuals.

Multiple backdrops are colorful and imaginative, as are the set pieces, though we easily see actor escapes we aren’t supposed view. Sight lines are awful. Don’t be surprised if your little one wants to stand on a seat to see over the person in front of them.

The sound was excellent: Every line and every note comes through loud and clear. The unimaginative staging needs choreography. Prancing in circles, or standing in straight lines, makes it feel the director had no faith in the ability of the cast. The children’s ensemble is cute, as little kids are meant to be onstage. The young people’s chorus portraying the Oompa-Loompas does a fine job. The young actors in featured roles, who win the golden tickets for the factory tour, are all appropriately bratty little horrors. The standouts are Veronica and Mike. Both have developed characters that go beyond mere vocal interpretation.

And, of course, there’s the young actor playing Charlie, who is the only unspoiled child of the bunch and wins the day. He’s expressive, has a clear singing voice, and holds his own against the adult cast in every scene. We believe in his innocence even when he slips and gives in to temptation. We root for him as we should.

Of the adults, the Candy Man is exceptional. His interaction with the children’s ensemble during “The Candyman Can” is fun to watch, and his baritone voice is a joy. Grampa Joe starts out well, but his transformation from sickbed to health comes across as fake and overdone. Playing to mostly children, and for their benefit, doesn’t mean playing down to them.

Mr. Bucket, Charlie’s father, hit many a sour and flat note throughout the show. His acting ability is good, and the director should have steered him toward using a character voice. Famed actor Lee Marvin couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but won a Golden Globe for “Paint Your Wagon.”

When chocolatier Willy Wonka finally makes his entrance in Act 2, the production takes an upward turn. His purple costume and infectious smile grabs the rapt attention of the younger set.

By infusing a bit of the original darkness of the tale with vocal inflection and asides, he engages the adults. This is an actor who is comfortable on stage, has done his research and knows the character well and makes the show worthwhile.

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