The sweetest show of the year

By on February 7, 2018

EPAC kicks off 2018 season with Kids4Kids production of ‘Willy Wonka Jr.’

There are stories that magically span generations, and Charlie Bucket’s adventure at Willy Wonka’s factory is one of those tales.

I was not even born when “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” was released in 1971, but the film became an instant favorite when I eventually saw it on TV. Flash forward to 2005 when directing genius Tim Burton tried his hand at a film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” That same year my daughter was born; the movie, and subsequently anything Tim Burton, eventually became one of her favorites.

“Willy Wonka Jr.,” the all-children cast stage adaptation of Dahl’s story, opened Feb. 2 as part of the Kids4Kids program at Ephrata Performing Arts Center. The opening weekend’s shows were well attended, but seats remained open for the heartfelt tale of a poor boy named Charlie.

The show opens with the introduction of the eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka (Ethan Reimel) as he presents his world of “Pure Imagination” and sets the period in the “Golden Age of Chocolate” (which feels like the depression-stricken 1920s).

Wonka is a crafty optimist and transports the scene to the home of the Buckets &tstr; Mrs. Bucket (Olivia Tran-Speros), Mr. Bucket (Brett Devlin), Grandpa Joe (Andrew Hagy), Grandma Josephine (Kayla Ketchum), Grandpa George (Adam Smith), Grandma Georgina (Jenna Zueno), and our protagonist Charlie Bucket (dually played by Ryan Kimbark and George Fenimore).

(Left to right) Will Sensing, Hunter Smith, Ryan Kimbark, Ethan Reimel, George Fenimore, Alisia Alvarez, and Clara MeCouch are key members of the cast of “Willy Wonka Jr.” at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (LNP file photo)

The Buckets live in a shack and dine on old cabbage soup, but keep their spirits high. Charlie is sent off to fetch a newspaper for his father when he runs into his friends James (Conner Moodie) and Matilda (Olivia Eichler), who get caught up in the “The Candy Man,” performed on the EPAC stage by Henry Greiner.

Soon after, we learn the secretive Wonka has hidden golden tickets in a select few of his candy bars. The golden tickets will award the holder with a tour of the mysterious Wonka factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. A whirlwind of activity washes over the stage, ceiling mounted televisions break the news of lucky boys and girls finding tickets as reporter Phineous Trout (Miguel Prysakar) jet-sets around the globe interviewing the children: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Hunter Smith) and his mother (Meghan Farling) gorging in Germany; the vile and spoiled Veruca Salt (Alisia Alvarez) and her father (Bryce Rissler) in Brazil; a gum-obsessed southern gal named Violet Beauregarde (Clara Mecouch) and her overwhelmed mother (Angela Beebe); and Mike Teavee (Will Sensenig), whose attention is technology fixed to the docile dismay of his browbeaten mother (Lily Montgomery) in California. All the while, our Charlie is pushed to the edge of hope. Only one ticket remains when honesty lends him a dime … and Act I ends with the triumphant “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” starring Charlie and the rest of the ticket holders.

A 15-minute intermission allows theatre-goers some time to be immersed in the festive nature of the Sharadin Bigler Theatre lobby. With effort from show parents and volunteers, oversized treats hang overhead, candy necklaces and fizzy lifting drinks can be sipped, and Wonka bars created by Lancaster’s Miesse Candies can be purchased (if not sold out; they go fast) in hopes of finding a real golden ticket with real life prizes. Candygrams can also be purchased for a favorite little thespian.

Returning for Act II we meet Wonka at the gates of his factory, home to rooms filled with all sorts of gadgets and his tiny helpers, the Oompa Loopas. The winning ticket holders are tested, and their demise is sometimes slightly dark, but the tale winds along with superb performances from each of the children. I especially enjoyed the gum-chewing sass of Violet Beauregarde, the spastic rants of Mike Teavee, and the old-timey wit and optimism of Charlie’s Grandpa Joe who accompanied the youngster on the factory tour.

The films “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” are essentially the same story, based on the same book. What sets them apart is directorial vision and the role of Willy Wonka. The same can be said about EPAC’s “Willy Wonka Jr.”

In 1971, Wonka is aggressively cool and a tad psychedelic when played by legendary funnyman Gene Wilder. Burton’s rendition stars Johnny Depp as Wonka, who brings a twinge of insanity and degradation to the role. Reimel seems to embrace the character more like Wilder did, with a casual yet pointed and direct way of speaking (but also nailing the sarcasm). He is calm, yet eerily zany at times, minus the often-obnoxious facial expressions Depp insisted upon wearing. Reimel shines in numbers like the borderline frightening “There’s No Knowing” and the show’s opening numbers. Hitting humorous fragments hidden amongst the dialogue, his delivery is perfect in scenes depicting the demise of Gloop, Beauregarde, and Salt. (Oh, and that reminds me of the squirrels; they are so cute!) The crowd thoroughly enjoys Reimel’s performance, and responds with appropriate laughter and surprise.

With this production, director Irving Gonzalez brought grand ideas and massive aspirations to the stage (as usual). With the help of the talented choreographer Kristin Pontz, Gonzalez’s show bounces, leaps, and dances its way into the hearts of the audience.

Not shorting the hours upon hours spent by all involved, but this show would barely be the creative eye candy it is without the work of the costume crew headed by Carolyn Smith. Evidence of this is with The Candy Girls (Lily Gould, Kendall Winters, Arielle Marie Geig, Katelyn Pilsner) whose costumes are beyond expectation for any show. Plus, there are the Oompa Loompas in all their tiny, colorful glory.

It is obvious a lot of hard work went into “Willy Wonka Jr.” by many individuals — the show stars 60 kids — and the result is a funny and quirky show, which highlights the importance of attitude, family, and honesty. If there was ever a show to see as a good example of how to behave — or not behave, in the case of a few bad nuts — “Willy Wonka Jr.” is it.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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