Wonka Bars Good to the Last Bite

I don’t usually like to write about things that readers will be unable to see, but I do feel strongly that something must be said about the current ECTeam production of “Willie Wonka Jr.” As a part of the SRO Bristol Opear House audience on Friday evening, I was probably one of the few who had no young friends or relatives in the 75-member cast. That qualifies me to make an unprejudiced observation: It was probably the best youth theater production I have seen. My immediate thought was that most kids shows are appreciated only by friends and family but this one I could recommend to anyone who likes an enjoyable evening of theater. The leading players were outstanding, with special applause for Carson Collins as Charlie, a youngster with an amazing voice and excellent stage presence; Payton Manly as the manipulative Willie Wonka; Daniel Cotton as his co-hort in candy crime; Leigh VanRyn, Michael Salisbury, Erin Weber and Joel Lininger as the ticket holders whose individual flaws lead to their hilariously appropriate downfalls; Dakota Miller, Stephen Mattison, Marilyn Cover and Mallory Jones as their parents; Tim Moon as Charlie’s supportive Grandpa Joe; Stephanie Musser, Callahan Jones and Jill Springer as his other bed-bound grandparents; Alex Slabaugh and Katie Norwood as his parents, and Dayna Arnett as a TV persistant reporter.

Willie Wonka - BristolThese performers took center stage throughout, but possibly the most impressive groups in this musical were the Teen Ensemble and the absolutely delightful Oompa Loompas. Groups of this size are never easy to coordinate, but these young people were right on the money, vocally and dance-wise, and the very youngest Oompa Loompa was an audience favorite with his earnest efforts to stay in step). I have seen many larger adult choruses that did not fare as well. And, since this is one of my pet peeves, I have to say I could understand just about every lyric and all the dialogue. Congratulations! There is no doubt that a good many of these youngsters will be on stage again, not only in ECTeam productions but in mainstage shows at ECT and their respective schools. It’s a real joy to watch them grow. It is programs like this, with talented and caring adult leaders sharing their knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm with the next generation, that keep the joy of theater alive and well, even in the face of the current economy. The shows at 7 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday are sold out, but there are usually some unused tickets. ECT asks anyone who will not be using all the tickets they reserved to please call the box office as there are always people who walk in at the last minute.

Willie, Charlie and a whole lotta kids

BRISTOL — For about 45 years, the story of a poor boy whose honesty earns him the best of all childhood rewards — cash and candy, has been a favorite of young readers around the world. It was inevitable that Roald Dahl’s award-winning book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” would make its way to the big screen. It did. Not once but twice, with the original 1971 Gene Wilder film “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” redone in 2005 using the original name and starring Johnny Depp in a Buster Brown hairdo and frightening circular dark glasses. Today, candy czar Willie Wonka and the quintet of young people who win a trip through his factory are on stage, specifically in “Willie Wonka, Jr.” an adaptation for young performers which sticks mainly to the book/’71 film and uses the tuneful score by Anthony Newley. (Note: “Oldsters” will recognize a Sammy Davis Jr. hit among the upbeat melodies.)

Willie Wonka- Brstol
Choreographer Lesli Gibson works with bewigged Oompa Loompas on a dance sequence for
For the past few months, ECTeam, the youth theater arm of Elkhart Civic Theatre, has been working diligently on its production of the junior version, with ECT artistic/technical director John Jay Shoup leading the way (and the large number of volunteers) via set design, lighting design and direction. The results will be on stage at the Bristol Opera House Friday through Sunday. I stopped in at an early dress rehearsal Monday and was properly impressed. Taking a break from building some of the magical props required for the chocolate factory tour, Shoup admitted that, although he has directed many adult shows with large casts, working with 80 youngsters (ages five to 18, chosen from the 130 who auditioned) on the less-than-massive Opera House stage had been, to say the least, “a challenge!” The solution? To divide the primary group into two categories: The Teen Dance Ensemble is featured in Act 1, Willie’s workers, the lime-green-bewigged Oompa Loompas, take the stage in Act 2 and, “If they all line up correctly, they all fit for the finale.” The cast features first-time performers plus those who, considering their ages, have an amazing amount of experience. Not surprisingly, leading roles are in the hands of those with more on-stage time to their credit. Paxton Manley, 15, who doubled as the Preacher and the Town Drunk in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” dons a top hat as the inscrutable Willie Wonka, with Carson Collins, 12, as Charlie Bucket. The St. Thomas School sixth grader played the leading role of Jojo in ECT’s Elco summer production of “Seussical.”

Willie Wonka - BristolBoth the talented young people display a maturity well beyond their years. “I feel at home on the stage,” said Paxton, a Memorial High School freshman. “I really get my rush from performing.” Citing singing as his first love, the tall teen noted “I take every opportunity to perform. The more experience you have, the better you get.” “Willie Wonka Jr.” is the sixth show for Carson who has “always liked acting” and admits wanting to be on the stage since he was three years old. “I like being on the stage and working with the people,” he said. “I like seeing how everything works — sets, props, lights. . . everything. Everyone is positive here. I love it!” That’s what Shoup and fellow adult volunteers like to hear. “We want to make sure this is as good and as educational an experience as possible,” he said, comparing participation in an ECTeam production to being a member of a club in which everyone has the same goal, to present the best show possible and, along the way, to find and make friends who also love to “put on a show”. “The more kids who can get involved in theater, the better,” Shoup said, aware that with young performers come parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts and friends who not only to buy tickets but become participants themselves. Elijah Lee, 6, came with sister Cadie, 8, and is one of the more energetic Oompa Loompas. “I wanted to see how fun it is,” he said, trying valiantly to keep the slippery strands of the lime green wig out of his eyes. He already was connected to the ECTeam via grandmother Karen Johnson who is assistant director and helped Elijah learn his lines. “I will come back and do more,” Elijah said emphatically, noting — after serious consideration — “The most fun is the finale.”

Willie Wonka - BristolIn addition to June classes (which have been affected by the disappearance of Genesis grants), ECTeam does two shows a year. A musical like “Willie Wonka Jr.” (next year’s is “Alice in Wonderland”) and a fall play based on classic literature. For 2009, two one-acts based on the lives of the Brothers Grimm and one of their stories have been chosen. Shoup is hoping some of the older players will be a part of the ECT 2009 summer musical, “Footloose,” to be presented July 31-Aug. 2 in the Memorial High School auditoriums. Check out the young “stars of tomorrow” this weekend. A Saturday matinee has been added due to the ticket demand. Call 848-4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. I guarantee you’ll find the experience “fascinating and delicious!”

Almost, Maine absolutely excellent

Proving once again that the best things frequently come in small packages is the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Almost, Maine.” Playing through Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, this delightfully warm work by first-time playwright John Cariani looks at the many phases and forms of love — coming and going — through a series of eight vignettes, each enacted by a different couple (and, in one case, plus one). Originally performed by two men and two women who alternated in the 16 roles, the script allows for the cast to number as many as 19 — nine men and 10 women — which is the format used with exceptional success by SBCT. Too often, this would result in several strong duos and, at best, a couple not-so-strong. Here, there are no not-so-strongs in the bunch. Making it even more interesting, several are pairs in real life. But whether connected outside as well as on stage, each twosome makes its playlet totally believable, even when frequently absurd.

almost-maineThe tales are set in a small town in an “unorganized territory” almost in Maine. Its characters drink at the local bar, the Moose Paddy, and obviously know each other outside of their particular relationships. Think “Northern Exposure” or “Men in Trees” without actual connections. From the widow carrying a broken heart to a mismatched duo meeting in the laundry room to a young woman coming home for an answer, each segment is an individual gem. The stories range from the oddly romantic to the semi-slapstick to the bittersweet, with a Prologue/Interlogue/Epilogue encircling them all in a global embrace that shows actions speak louder than. Director Leigh Taylor has led her actors, which include those with a long list of credits and those with few or none, deftly and directly to the heart of each scene. The results, without exception, are delightfully gratifying and right on the money. There is really no set, unless you count the long wide strip of cotton batting stretched across the bottom of the back wall to indicate snow. Each segment has its own set pieces and the “northern lights” are most effective. The rest is done by the actors, and the quirkily wonderful script by Coriani, himself a Tony-nominated actor. It was developed in 2002, premiered in 2004 (appropriately at the Portland Stage Company) and played off Broadway in 2005-06, being named one of the best new plays of the season. The reason for its swift rise in popularity is obvious in the SBCT production. There is no doubt it will be around for many seasons to come. It’s the perfect show for any time, but is especially appropriate as Valentine’s Day draws near. Unfortunately, only five more performances are scheduled (Wednesday through Sunday) and the studio theater has limited seating. My advice is to call now (243-1112) and book a trip to “Almost, Maine.” TRAVELED TO KALAMAZOO Thursday evening to catch the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre production of a rarely-produced Steven Schwartz/Joseph Stein musical “The Baker’s Wife” directed by the Elco’s  Craig Gibson with Elkhart’s Paul Hanft as the Baker. This was the second or third version of the musical which, despite two Broadway productions, never caught on. The music remains lovely and the story rather obvious but the KCT production boasted an excellent orchestra and an ensemble that provided many strong individual performances as well as a full vocal presention.   Hanft, as always, provided the Baker with a fine baritone and was especially convincing in his Act One finale. The premise hangs on the baker’s wife, Genevieve, being believeably much younger than her new husband and thus susceptible to the advances of Dominique, the local stud, thus throwing the bread-obsessed villagers into a panic when their departure kills the baker’s zest for his art. This Genevieve may have been much younger, but her wig gave her the appearance of a matron from “Mad Men”  and her voice was much too heavy for the role. Dominique was too short, too slight and too palid to come anywhere close to being a wild and dangerous ladies man. The necessary connection was nowhere to be found. For fans of this musical, however, it plays one more weekend in the KCT studio theater. For tickets, (269) 343-1313.