The Softer Side of a Cautionary Tale
By Tom Wachunas
My momma always said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” -from Forrest Gump –
Having never read Roald Dahl’s 1964 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my primary referent point regarding the story remains the 1971 film adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring the brilliant Gene Wilder in the title role of the reclusive, complicated chocolatier. By comparison, the typically bizarre Tim Burton film, from 2005 and featuring Johnny Depp as the wily Wonka, was largely an unmitigated disaster.
Based on the films alone, I never bought into the proposition that this was strictly a “children’s story.” Like the iconic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1950s, I still think this narrative is, at its core, more the purview of adults (well-adjusted and otherwise), and only pretends to be for kids.
The current stage production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Canton Players Guild Theatre is a dramatization by Richard R. George and directed here by Carrie Alexander Spina. The show is clearly intended as “family entertainment,” well- tailored to generously tickle younger folks’ fancies, and only lightly sprinkled with the film versions’ headier, less innocent elements that seem so darkly appealing to us grownups.
That said, it’s a generally satisfying theatrical experience. Surprisingly so, when considering that it’s presented in the Guild’s smaller arena theater. You’d think that a fantasy spectacle of this scale would necessarily require the much larger main stage. But the limited dimensions of the performance space are creatively used in an expansive way, enhanced by the simple but very inventive scenic and lighting design by Josh Erichsen and Scott Sutton, respectively.
Particularly clever is the manner in which four of the five Golden Ticket winners are introduced. We watch a pre-recorded video news cast on a large flat screen high above the set. Here’s where the children are individually interviewed prior to their tour of Willy Wonka’s factory, and where we first encounter their insufferably bratty and selfish natures.
Kudos to the brilliantly directed young performers who clearly relish this chance to credibly play badly-parented children and give new meaning to “acting out”: Elden Mortensen as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop; Bella Marie Gill as Veruca Salt, the spoiled-rotten, loud rich girl; Morgan Brown as the haughty, incessantly gum-chomping Violet Beauregarde; and Jared Six playing Mike Teavee, hopelessly addicted to television. The scenes of their hilarious comeuppances (Violet, for example, gets turned into a blueberry, and Mike is morphed into a television transmission) are made all the more delicious by the convincing hysterical reactions portrayed by their flummoxed parents.
In direct counterpoint to all this manic mayhem is the endearing character of Charlie Bucket. To that role, Drake Spina brings a quiet yet spunky energy, grounded in authentic curiosity and warmth, as does J. Scotland Gallo in his role as Grandpa Joe.
E.J. Dubinsky’s enjoyable rendering of Willy Wonka is decidedly less enigmatic and edgy than Gene Wilder’s, and imbued with a gentler, youthful accessibility. He’s more the quirky wizard than the eccentric paranoid. And the six children sporting candy-colored hair bobs, cavorting about in hippity-hop stutter step as the Oompa Loompas, aren’t so weird or otherworldly as they are simply adorable.
The difference between the film version and this sweet confection is the difference between dark chocolate-covered nuts and creamy-smooth nougats.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton. Shows THROUGH Feb. 3, Fridays at 7p.m, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $15, and $12 for age 17 and younger. Box office at (330) 453 – 7617, or visit www.cantonplayersguildtheatre.com
PHOTOS (rehearsal shots) by James Dreussi. Top, left-to-right: Elden Mortensen, Morgan Brown, Drake Spina, E.J Dubinsky, Bella Marie Gill, Jared Six