By Melanie R. Meadors
I knew I could never hope to actually like the play.
After all, how many versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could they make? And how could anyone play Wonka better than Gene Wilder in the 1971 film? I’d heard two-time Tony winner Christian Borles played him on Broadway, which might have been satisfying, but this was the touring cast with different actors. I’d also heard adults were playing the kids, and there was something weird(er) going on with the Oompa Loompas in this production. Not only that, but, apparently, they had modernized the story. That’s never worked well, has it? And of course, children would be in the audience. Possibly loud children who kick seats. None of this sounded like a good idea to me.
I was ready to hate it.
Who was I to turn down a night at the Hanover, though? I do admit, my curiosity was piqued. Willy Wonka is one of my favorite characters. So, ticket in hand, I went to the Hanover Theater last Tuesday, March 3, found my seat, and braced myself.
Then, the curtain rose. And the moment Cody Garcia appeared as Willy Wonka, everything changed.
His presence on stage grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. I knew from his first words, his first actions, that this man was Willy Wonka. The Candy Man had cast his spell.
From there, the audience met Charlie Bucket, played by the talented Brody Bett, and I could see Wonka wasn’t the only character they managed to nail in this production. In fact, there wasn’t a single performance in this play I found lacking. The characters were indeed updated a bit but in ways absolutely appropriate to the story. These changes made them relatable and funny to the audience, both young and old. Purists were left with little to complain about.
I laughed out loud several times during the performance, at both the fun and ironic humor and the dark. There was even a poop joke (and who doesn’t like a good poop joke, really?). The portrayal of the kids were caricatures but skillfully done—ironic rather than overly annoying. With the exception of Charlie, the golden ticket winners were indeed played by actors older than their characters. This aspect, which I thought would be jarring, ended up being barely noticeable in performance. The actors were both young and skilled enough to play the parts convincingly.
Wonka himself, as portrayed by Cody Garcia, is delightfully wicked, yet we can see him showing hints of kindness, from time to time, towards Charlie. His costume, designed by Mark Thompson, was perfect, as was his tone and delivery of wry humor.
A character worthy of special mention is Grandpa Joe, played by Steve McCoy. He delivers some fantastic comedic lines which are impeccably timed, yet he also bears a sense of wisdom as well, and it’s easy to see why he is Charlie’s confidante.
The director, Matt Lenz, deserves commendation for his light touch with both the funny and tender elements. These could very easily have been over-acted or had a “nod-wink” feel to them that would tear an audience’s attention from the story, but I never felt that this was the case during the show.
Now, let’s talk about the characters everyone loves to hate: the Oompa Loompas. They have always struck me as creepy and kind of…evil. They are, after all, the harbingers of doom for the nasty children who can’t follow rules. In this production, however, there is an ingenious take on them, involving puppetry designed by Basil Twist and choreography by Alison Solomon. Rather than being dull or just plain weird (as I’ve always found them), the Oompa Loompas in this production were exciting, engaging, and fun.
My favorite scenes of the play? There were so many to choose from. Among them was a scene where the characters must go through an obstacle course of sorts, with only deft acting, sound, and audience imagination as the set. The most magical scene for me, however, was the Room of Pure Imagination. It gave me a genuine sense of wonder, like I was a kid again. The set was amazing, and when Wonka sang the song “Pure Imagination,” I truly felt transported to that world of candy.
What do you know? I hated the show I thought I’d love.
No. As Wonka would say, “Strike that. Reverse it.”
I absolutely loved this show I thought I’d hate, and I feel bad for anyone who missed the performance.
Oh, and those potentially pesky, noisy kids in the audience? They were delightful, enthusiastic, and seemed to enjoy the show every bit as much as I did.