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.
These 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.