Encore Michigan

Willy Wonka is sweet delight for families at The Riverbank

ReviewYouth/Family April 16, 2016 Paula Bradley

MARINE CITY, Mich.–The Riverbank Theatre in Marine City is tempting viewers to bring the whole family to enjoy the funny and uplifting story of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, directed by Lisa Copley and playing April 15 through May 1.

All but the youngest audience members will likely remember the story from the classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, which has been adapted twice for film. Young Charlie Bucket lives with his parents and grandparents, who scrape by on the meager earnings Mr. Bucket brings home from the local toothpaste factory. The family lives in a spartan home, yet they continually display optimism and joy of life.

When Charlie’s birthday comes, the family can only afford to buy Charlie two candy bars, hoping one of them will yield a “Golden Ticket”—a tour of the local Wonka Candy Factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie’s spirits only lag for a moment when neither bar is a winner, but he happily offers to share the candy with his family. Meanwhile, there is worldwide media frenzy as the first four Golden Ticket winners are identified and interviewed by TV reporters.

As luck would have it, the neighborhood candy man ensures that Charlie finds a lucky golden ticket. Charlie invites Grandpa Joe to be his guest, and the tour commences. The guests are dazzled by the amazing candy creations in the factory, and curious about the factory workers called Oompa Loompas. One by one, however, the winners are done in by their own selfishness, breaking Wonka’s rules; all are caught except Charlie and Grandpa Joe, the only ones left at the end of the tour.

As the disappointed Willy Wonka sends Charlie home with his lifetime supply of chocolate, Charlie’s honesty gets the best of him, and he refuses to accept the prize after admitting to breaking the rules. Wonka pauses, and then admits to Charlie that his honesty and good heart have made him the real winner: the new owner of the whole chocolate factory.

Young actor Brian Martin aptly conveys Charlie’s eternal optimism and honesty. He not only cheers himself up, but manages to lift the spirits of his family, even in their dire circumstances. Martin’s delivery is even and clear, and his voice is sweet.

Chocolate mastermind Willy Wonka is played with gentle wit by Ty Evenson, who manages to expose the true nature of his flawed contest winners not only with cleverly designed temptations, but with smooth sarcasm and an occasional giggle. He somehow makes the purple velvet jacket, shiny metallic vest and top hat feel refined, never clownish. Evenson makes the most of the silent moment when Mr. Wonka’s disappointment turns to pure relief as Charlie’s honesty wins the day.

While Mr. Wonka’s humor is subtle, the rest of the cast members deliver laugh after laugh. The other contest winners are selfish, spoiled brats, irritatingly rude and disrespectful. You might want to slap one of them, or their inept parents, until you remember they are acting. Augustus Gloop (Bradley Wilson) will make you believe he is about to eat the set itself in “I Eat More,” while his mother (Kyle Burch) is busy convincing TV reporter Phineous Trout (Anson Pavlov) that gluttony is a virtue. Veruca Salt (Elizabeth Angell) throws tantrums to rival the most ornery toddler, and easily manipulates her wealthy father (Michael Bickley), who never ceases marketing his nut business. Violet Beauregard (Brooke Pacifico) is a brash and somewhat disgusting gum-chewing girl who continually orders her mild-mannered mother (Amanda Sayers) to be quiet. And Mike Teavee (Benjamin Adair) can’t even be bothered to acknowledge his doting mother (Maggie Alger) amidst his obsession with electronic devices.

While these young actors deftly portray the attitudes of kids we love to hate, there are other youth in the cast with redeeming roles, such as the neighborhood children. And I’ll admit, while I always thought the Oompa Loompas in the movies were a tiny bit creepy, the little Oompa Loompas in this production were downright adorable. (I felt a bit like Veruca when she said “I want an Oompa Loompa!”)

In contrast to the enabling parents of the other contest winners, Charlie’s parents (Dan Williams, Diana Turner) and grandparents (Nancy Penvose, Sharon Bickley, Brian Kaufman and Frank Bublitz) are loving, modest and humble. The grandparents serve up comic relief to their bleak situation as they bicker and tease each other, while lying perpetually in the same cramped bed. (The way they stay there throughout the first act, including several long scenes when they must remain motionless, is a great example of stage stamina.)

This musical features several memorable songs: “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket.” The vocal performances are pleasing, and the music adds a joyful energy to the story. The young cast sounds refreshingly youthful, and offers the audience something not all young actors can: clear and well enunciated lines and lyrics—except when their mouths are full, of course. Choreography is simple but sometimes humorous.

The set design effectively marks a contrast between the bleak Bucket abode and the lavish Wonka candy factory. Indeed, one of the Riverbank Theatre’s neighbors is The Sweet Tooth of Marine City, an old-fashioned candy shop whose owner, Todd May, decorated both the set and the lobby (and backstage, I’m told) with colorful, delicious sweets. Audiences have an opportunity to enjoy a variety of The Sweet Tooth’s offerings (including gourmet truffles) before, during and after the show. Many young audience members were munching on Wonka bars and other treats.

The set design cleverly uses a two-level concept to transition between scenes with minimal interruption. There are some interesting technical and visual features as well, such as the flight of the glass elevator over the landscape of Marine City.

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, adapted for the stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald) is a musical, but it is about more than the music, or even childhood fantasy; it is about optimism, love and especially about the triumph of pure character over circumstance and selfishness, which is a hallmark of Roald Dahl’s stories. The wise Mr. Wonka’s sums it up by saying, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” Take your children, parents, grandparents—everyone will enjoy this night of sweet entertainment.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Week of 11/29/2021

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