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FAMILY : Sweet but Not Too Sugary : Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Produces a ‘Willy Wonka’ With Homespun Appeal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vidheads, rejoice. If you’re tempted by the idea of live theater but are loathe to leave the comforting embrace of your Barca-Lounger and VCR, the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Youth Theater has a show for you.

“Willy Wonka & His Extraordinary Chocolate Factory,” an original adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,"is a quirky but mostly entertaining union between video and live action sequences that should engage children as young as 5. Written by Cheryl Sanders and Cecily Gish and directed by Sanders, the two-hour musical fantasy continues through Sunday.

Like any marriage, “Willy” has its rough spots. The show suffers most in the musical department: Vocals by the 5- to 14-year-old cast members often are weak, especially the solos. Sanders shores things up by inviting the audience to pitch in on the “Oompa Loompa” choruses, thoughtfully providing the lyrics in classic “Sing Along With Mitch” style on the three video monitors suspended over the stage. Sunday night’s crowd, which ran toward preteens and teen-agers, complied con gusto.

The video sequences tie the show together. Written and directed by 16-year-old Josh Lander, these pieces aren’t terribly sophisticated technically, but they are an unqualified hoot. A quasi-film noir bit, in which the wife of a kidnap victim (student director Andrea Hough in a cameo role) debates whether to give up her case of Wonka Bars as ransom for her husband, is a scream. The topical humor in other sequences works well without being too heavy-handed.

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The script by Sanders and her 18-year-old daughter, Gish, borrows almost equally from Dahl’s book and the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Charlie Bucket, a hard-working poor kid with a heart of gold, yearns for a steady diet of Wonka Bars but has to settle for cabbage soup to help his family make ends meet. When eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka hosts a worldwide contest that will admit five lucky winners to his mysterious factory, Charlie humbly stands by while his peers pig out on candy in their quest for a winning ticket.

*

But, happily for Charlie, this time the meek inherit the Earth. (We told you it was a fantasy.) Through a twist of fate, Charlie nabs the final ticket, and soon he and his plucky Grandpa Joe join the four other winners on a tour of Wonka’s magical candy plant.

Charlie’s fellow travelers all are supremely obnoxious in their own special ways, and their pigheadedness, combined with Wonka’s amazing machines, soon help the little terrorists get their just deserts. And we’re not talking ice cream sundaes.

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With fully half the action set inside Wonka’s factory, this is a story that can rely heavily on special effects. On an obviously tight budget, Sanders can’t come close to pulling off the tricks created in the movies or in a more professional stage production. Her effects are driven mostly by trapdoors and strings of twinkly Christmas lights; the recorded score is thin and under-amplified, and the tech crew could use a few more days in the harness.

Nonetheless, there is sort of a homespun appeal to the roughness and the cast seems caught up in the fun, although many of the actors might benefit from a tighter directorial hand. The younger kids, especially the half-dozen Oompa Loompas and Broc Wilson’s Augustus Gloop, ricochet around the stage as unpredictably as super balls.

Stacey Naldeth as bratty rich kid Varuca Salt and Amy Noel Abbascia as gum-popping Violet Beauregard are standouts among Charlie’s compadres. Dean Wojkowski’s Willy Wonka has good moments, but Sunday his quips often were lost in the rapid-fire delivery.

Though fettered by a ridiculous set of eyebrows and mustachios, Justin Kloeckner makes a fine Grandpa Joe to Christopher Stewart’s Charlie. Stewart has an unruly mop of blond hair and a gentle gaze, and his portrayal goes down as easily as fine chocolate: sweet, satisfying, but not too sugary.

* “Willy Wonka & His Extraordinary Chocolate Factory,” Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton, Costa Mesa. Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Closes Sunday Aug 20. $5. (714) 650-5269. Running time: Two hours.

Dean Wojkowski: Willy Wonka

Christopher Stewart: Charlie Bucket

Justin Kloeckner: Grandpa Joe

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Dylan Beynon: Mike TeaVee

Stacey Naldeth: Varuca Salt

Amy Noel Abbascia: Violet Beauregard

Broc Wilson: Augustus Gloop

Lauren Ballantyne: Anchorwoman

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Youth Theater production of a play by Cheryl Sanders and Cecily Gish, based on the book “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. Directed by Cheryl Sanders. Student director: Andrea Hough. Videos written and directed by Josh Lander. Choreography: Ryann Crofoot. Set design: Rob Hough. Costumes: Holly Abbascia.


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