While its frequent use of puppetry provides moments of pure imagination, this Chicago Shakespeare production of “Willy Wonka” — a family-targeted musical version of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — otherwise feels mostly like a practical affair, making it a decent entertainment but not a treat worth craving.
This particular version of the show was developed several years ago at the Kennedy Center by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald. Bricusse, along with Anthony Newley, contributed well-known songs like “The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination” to the Gene Wilder-starring film version, and they’ve added other similarly retro-sounding songs to this stage adaptation.
It’s not surprising then that this 70-minute piece feels more deeply connected in tone to the nostalgic memory of that 1971 movie than to the spirited book or to the fanciful if ultimately flat-footed 2005 Tim Burton-Johnny Depp interpretation.
The opportunity here — a familiar, beloved title with potential cross-generational appeal — seems quite obvious, but this is really a monstrous theatrical challenge, calling for an ensemble of kid characters, not to mention the fantastical Wonka factory, and a collection of under-sized imported laborers, the Oompa Loompas.
Director Joe Leonardo casts adults in the kids’ roles — and the versatile ensemble of only eight plays all the other characters, too. There’s real display of talent throughout, but we only truly get lost in the performances when the cast is manipulating Meredith Miller’s outstanding life-size puppets, used to depict both Charlie’s ancient, bed-ridden grandparents and those Oompa Loompas, who, in the one nod to Burton’s vision, all look eerily identical.
Obvious funds have been put into the setpieces — there’s a full-sized boat and giant multi-colored lollipops for oars — and one has to credit Chicago Shakespeare for bringing this level of production value to a show targeted to kids. Diane Ferry Williams’ lighting is at a particularly high level, asked to do extra duty in depicting some of the wackier qualities of Wonka’s rooms — that shrinking room, for example.
The thing is, most of the solutions to what should be the most theatrical sequences, when the bad kids get eliminated from the golden-ticket tour one by one, feel more efficient than interesting. Gluttonous Augustus (George Andrew Wolff) gets wrapped in a brown fabric representing the chocolate river, while gum-crazy Violet (Melanie Brezill) is bathed in blue light and mimes ballooning outward to symbolize her transformation into a blueberry.
It’s all fine, but neither inspired nor inspiring, until the visually captivating Oompa Loompa puppets re-emerge.
Other than the puppets, this is ultimately a production that’s very safe and soft, even in its portrayal of Willy Wonka himself, played with skill but not a whole lot of spunk by Sean Fortunato. This is a realistic, reasonable Willy Wonka, a slight eccentric who promises not to surprise the kids in the audience too much, or to provoke much glee.
And as Charlie, the talented Patrick Andrews pulls off the optimism and the moral decency of the every-boy, but it feels too much like a cliche kid played by a peppy actor — all energy and niceness and not much depth.
It all makes one wonder what would happen if puppet designer Miller were permitted to create Wonka and Charlie and the other kids, too.