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GOING BONKERS FOR ‘WONKA’

Modern musical takes on classic tale of hope, redemption
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Charlie Bucket, played by George Buerer, races around excitedly after he finds the fifth and final golden ticket just in time for the tour of the chocolate factory during the first act of “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka.” The classic tale, set in modern times, showcases Charlie’s progression from being a child in an impoverished family to owner of amazing candy empire.

The Box in the Wood Theatre Guild hopes that its latest production, “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” really hits the sweet spot with audiences.

Patrons should not expect the stage musical to be a carbon copy of the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which was itself based on Dahl’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” What they should expect is a mish-mash of both, flashing forward to the modern era and including some new songs to make things interesting.

Jonathon Kent is co-director for the show with Cheryl Ritter. Kent, a retired music teacher with a reputation for bringing elaborate high school musical productions to life, said audiences should fully expect the Box in the Wood production “to transport audiences into the world of Willy Wonka.”

“There is hope, even for the poorest of the poor, that good people can be rewarded,” Kent said.

Kent is used to dealing with the younger actors, as he incorporated elementary-and middle school-aged children into his shows, but he found he also enjoyed working with the adults who made up the parents, grandparents and the great Wonka himself. All told, there are 55 cast members in “Willy Wonka.”

“Every now and then, it’s a little difficult to get them back on track, but for the most part, the kids have been great,” Kent said. “Everybody has their times when they’re not listening, but that’s what this is all about.”

The musical introduces Wonka right away as he tells the audience he plans to retire and must find a successor — a twist from where the movie and book cloak the chocolate maker in mystery and only reveal him midway. Otherwise, the plot follows a similar path, where Wonka hides five golden tickets in his candy bars distributed all over the world, creating a mad rush on candy shops by eager chocolate lovers to enjoy the rare experience of seeing Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Among the five lucky winners is Charlie Bucket, whose family is impoverished with a father laid off from his job and four bedridden grandparents. The Bucket family is too poor to buy Wonka bars at the feverish rate of other parents, but the family comes together to buy Charlie a candy bar for a birthday present — and Grandpa Joe sneaks him another one later — but neither provide a flash of gold. It’s only when Charlie finds a silver dollar in the street and decides to chance buying a Wonka bar that he hits the jackpot.

The other four golden ticket-holders are spoiled, insolent and rude, each meeting their just desserts in poetic fashion — always followed by a sing-song morality tale from the beloved Oompa-Loompas. Before long, the only one who remains is Charlie, who also gave in to temptation but had the proper upbringing to admit he’d disobeyed the rules, leading to one last song from the Oompa-Loompas and the journey in the Great Glass Elevator.

“It’s an old story of redemption, because when Charlie and Grandpa Joe breaks the rules — and Willy Wonka knows they broke the rules — they admit they broke the rules, and that’s the trigger that allows him to see past the mistake,” Kent said.

The musical is expected to grab some younger audience members by bringing the classic tale into the 21st century. For example, the television-addicted Mike Teevee only breaks away from his shows to chat with friends on two separate cell phones.

“We have this set in 2005 to 2010, give or take, because we didn’t want to take it back too far,” Kent said. “This is a fantasy, as so many of these are anyway. It’s a fantasy that we have four old people that have been in a bed for 17 years.”

Kent said he prefers the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder as Wonka over the 2005 remake putting Johnny Depp in the role of the chocolate maker. The musical Box in the Wood will present for two weeks takes more elements from the first film, as the Broadway debut of “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” took place in 2004.

“I think it does a lot of things, and it points out the deficiencies, and yet in the end, no one is harmed, and the fantasy lives on,” Kent said.

The co-director said it took some getting used to the stage at the Mielke Arts Center, which is a black-box theater and smaller than the Shawano Community High School auditorium.

“There’s not much we can hide (at the Mielke) so we just do it out in the open,” Kent said.