'Wonka' is a chocolate lover's delight

The greatest charm of the Stepping Stone Players' most recent production, "Willy Wonka," lies in its outstanding mixed cast of children and adults. Eleven-year-old Austin Kelly as our hero — sweet, decent, chocolate-loving Charlie Bucket, is a triple threat — able to act, sing and fly 20 feet into the air, all at the same time.

Allan Hunt, so memorable as the Wizard in last year's Stepping Stone production of "The Wizard of Oz," holds his own as Charlie's Grandpa Joe, competing with five small scene-stealers — if you don't count the three dozen or so children who either sing and dance as Towns Kids, or as Oompa Loompas.

All performances are delightfully reminiscent of the ones in the 1971 classic movie version, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. In both the movie and the play, Charlie's dreams come true when he wins a tour of Willy Wonka's mysterious candy factory after finding a Golden Ticket in his Wonka Bar. So do four obnoxious little brats, played to perfection by four young actors with lists of professional credits longer than their arms.

There's the cheerfully piggish August Gloop (Lorenz Nicholas); the loud-mouthed, charmless, "Can it, you nit!" Violet Beauregarde (Danielle Soibelman); Material Girl "I want an Oompa Loompa now!" Veruca Salt (Chanelle Nibbelink); and Mike Teevee, literally obsessed with his TV set (Carter Thomas) whose own mother (Kathleen Campbell) proudly exclaims, "I serve all his TV dinners right here. He's never even been to the table." Which brings up the topic of the splendid work turned in by each and every onstage parent. Overseeing it all is Willy Wonka himself, as channeled by John Stephens with dry wit, light-footed finesse, and an outstanding singing voice.

That there are no weak links in this chain of magic isn't simply a tribute to the actors. It's a tribute to the amount of dormant talent in our local neighborhoods in general, and to director Kristopher Kyer's sharp eye in particular. His experience on the road with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's Three-Ring Circus seems to have come in handy.

The unseen talent working backstage also deserve high praise. Choreography by Rebecca Castells is age-appropriate for less-experienced dancers and still thoroughly entertaining. David Potter and numerous crew members keep the sets moving and the sound sounding terrific through teamwork by Mitch Zelezny and a full orchestra led by Craig Kupka. All that, plus special effects — Flying by Foy — with nary a bad landing. For the rest of us, there's the sweet and simple wonder of sitting together in the audience at a local high school auditorium, sharing a sense of community belonging.

Which is not to say that this production is perfect. The enormous Hoover High School Auditorium is the right size for special effects, from wind and smoke machines to flying machines. It's the right size for a cast of 50, with almost as many crew members. Unfortunately, it's designed for assemblies of more than 1,500 students, and not the smaller number of community theater-goers.

More problems are created by plot differences between the 1971 movie version and the stage show. Gone is the mystery surrounding Willy Wonka in the first third of the film. On stage, Willy Wonka starts the show as it's kind narrator. Then Wonka walks the streets in disguise as the Candy Man, dispensing smiles with every treat. What's worse, when Willy Wonka as the Candy Man lets Charlie find an extra dollar in the street, the entire "Golden Ticket" contest starts to smell suspiciously like a setup.

Also gone is the tension set up in the movie by Mr. Slugworth, Willy Wonka's villainous rival, who promises each young winner untold riches if one of them steals an Everlasting Gobstopper. When Charlie hands his Gobstopper back to Wonka near the end of the film, he's giving up his only chance to pull himself and his family out of poverty. In the play, Charlie's simple apology turns the day.

No matter which ending you prefer, Charlie's good deeds still shine in a weary world. Charlie learns what happens when you suddenly get everything you always wanted. And the Stepping Stone Players will continue to provide local families with an outstanding theater experience. May the board of directors live happily ever after.

MARY BURKIN is a Burbank actress and playwright and Glendale lawyer.



WHAT: "Willy Wonka" based on the book by Roald Dahl; music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; adapted for the stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 26

WHERE: Hoover High School Auditorium, 651 Glenwood Road, Glendale

TICKETS: Children, students and seniors: $12, adults $18, available at the door

PHONE: (818) 548-3180 or visit http://www.steppingstoneplayers.com

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