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Saturday September 20th 2014

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Never go on stage with a pet or kid.

Or 35 kids.
by Dylan O’Leary

The first sentence is a maxim all actors know: No matter how good you are, go up against a cute puppy or, worse, a cute kid on stage, and you’re dead. The audience will track on to that adorable side-kick and you can light yourself on fire and yodel “Dixie”, but the folks will never notice.

But the second sentence—35 kids?

Not only will you have a great show, but those kids will make you shine.

Pensacola Little Theatre’s production of “Willy Wonka the Musical” is fantastic and as sweet as any confection in Willy’s factory.

The lyrical story about a boy’s rags-to-riches adventure in a magical chocolate factory is accompanied by a battalion of Oompa-Loompas who only add to the exhilaration of the drama.

“I originally wanted only 20 kids to be in the musical, but 150 showed up for auditions,” said Emily Mixon, director and long-time Pensacola thespian. “There was so much talent that after I divided them into smaller and smaller groups, at the end the 35 were the core group.

“The kids underline everything in the story, especially the spirit of honesty and vulnerability. They fuel every emotion—when Charlie wins the Golden Ticket or when things are down for him, they convey the emotion to the audience.”

“They’re amazing,” said Patrick Winkles, who plays Wonka himself in this production. “To tell you the truth, I was a little worried about being on stage with 35 kids, but eventually I just learned to go with the flow and let them upstage me, because they don’t upstage me or anyone else. They are the stars just as much as anyone, and it’s a wonderful energy.”

“Patrick is a great actor,” Mixon said, complimenting the conservatory-trained Pensacolian late from Broadway. “He has the same quirky confidence that Willy Wonka has in the way he commands the stage.”

Indeed, he does. Winkles took immediate control of the stage at the very first moment of the show: the curtain rose on Winkles as he began the solo “Pure Imagination”. A cold start is always risky, yet Winkles’ delivery was electric, engaging the audience by the second note. One of the reasons it works is because Winkles’ depiction of Willy isn’t the effete character of the two popular movies.

Winkles’ persona is more Steve Coogan than Depp or Wilder, and he doesn’t let the role’s sarcasm (“deliciously bossy”) do all the work; he’s forceful, letting his physical presence be as intimidating as his wit and his amazing voice throughout the show. Willy has a serious reckoning to deliver with a rod to rotten kids—and bad parents—and he isn’t going to be shy in the dishing out.

The solo and opening scene sets up the story: Eccentric businessman needs an heir to kingdom. But it’s gotta be an honest kid. To wit, five kids get a chance to visit the factory so Willy can test them for their honesty.

“It’s an iconic story,” said Mixon. “The message is so strong, and it’s about being okay with who you are and with your personal growth. I think Charlie’s role says, ‘Just be glad you’re you.’ And Lewis brings that to the stage.”

Young Lewis Elliott takes on the role of Charlie Bucket.

“I took my cues from the notes I was given on Charlie,” Elliot said, a 14-year-old West Florida High School student. “He’s innocent, fair-minded, a team-leader, shy but open. I try my best to be all that on stage. I love the part, and I want to do Charlie justice.”

Both Elliott and Winkles added that one factor makes their portrayals all the better.

“Oh. My. God. Working with Emily is terrific,” Elliot said. “She is the kind of director I want to work with all the time. She is so kind and so creative.”

“It’s so wonderful for me,” Winkles said. “I’ve known Emily for years. We grew up together, and it’s great to work with her.”

Act One follows with high speed, slowed down only by the character-building nature of some of the songs, though Kip Hayes’ “I Eat More” had all the flair of Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast.” The Oompa-Loompa’s antics were, admittedly, show-stealing (the ball tossing was hilarious), and the Bucket Bed scenes were high camp. Oompas joined in on the big numbers (we’ll hear Alyx Levesque’s voice again soon) and the act poured a strong energy and a great, circus-esque physicality into the highly-coordinated choreography, letting the kids on stage perform as if it were a show they’d want to see.

Act Two deals with the planned demise of all five kids who Willy has brought into his Garden of Eden. There might as well be a sign that says “Don’t Eat From This Tree” as Willy tests and fails each child for their personal sins in this Every Kid Tale. Charlie’s sin is the same as Eve’s but his virtue and honesty saves him from exile as (spoiler alert) he is given the keys to the kingdom.

Second Acts are usually slumps with the possibility of a good ending. Not here. In fact, Act Two ramps up the energy and punctuates the show with a rousing finale.

Hayes’ Augustus Gloop is the first to fail the test of temptation as he falls into the chocolate river. But being thrown out first wasn’t so bad since Hayes gets the first Oompa-Loompa morality number, which the kids in the audience howled to. And Laura Mixon absolutely hammers Veruca Salt’s every line, gesture and note. Upon her demise, her Veruca takes control of the morality song condemning her corrupt soul—and conducts it!—reveling in her downfall.

The fizzy bubbles, the kids on scooters, and the highly inventive laboratory (Muppet Show!) make Act Two so entertaining. The production’s highly technical [wink] solution to Mike Teavee’s shrinking transformation without the benefit of Hollywood magic is so funny it stopped the dialogue. Charlie and Grandpa Joe get to sing while floating 10 feet up in the air—and the squirrels are adorable.

Act Two, which brings the reckoning of sin, also pulls out some hellish under-lighting and strobe to convey Dante’s Purgatory reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at moments, harrowing and not-so-comic. It was also good to hear Nathan Toepfer break out of the snotty American voice he’d been portraying and hit us with what seems to be a full operatic voice during his downfall number.

Flying high with Charlie and Grandpa Joe in his balloon, Willy lifts hearts and cheers with the cast and leaves a room full of happy kids with the bow. There are slight changes in this adaptation from the original novel, but you’ll have to look hard for them and they have nothing to do with the real thrill the young actors (and those older actors) perform.

WILLY WONKA THE MUSICAL
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12-14
WHERE: Pensacola Little Theatre, 400 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $14-$20, 12 years and younger get in half price, $1 handling fee per ticket
DETAILS: 432-2042 or pensacolalittletheatre.com

Willy Wonka the Musical is adapted from the 1964 children’s tale “Charlie and the Chocolate Factor” by Roald Dahl. The story had remarkable impact when published, framed by World War II and the coming of the psychedelic 60s.

Dahl saw first-hand the ravages of the Third Reich when he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, became a flying ace and intelligence agent, and rose to the rank of Wing Commander. The Oompa-Loompas figure as victims of WWII, refugees fleeing a monster who hunted them down and imprisoned them. And Dahl saw the 60s around the corner, evidenced not only by Willy’s Victorian-
yet-hippie persona but also in some of his racier works, which have been adapted to film by such auteurs as Hitchcock and Tarantino.

The storyline goes a little too far in its stratification of “poor but honest” versus “rich but corrupt” but the quaint Dickensian element blurs the politics. Further, the terror and thrill of fleeing the darker world for a freer, brighter future is the forte of the show, giving a palpable, emotional impact on an audience (though often hidden by its delightful whimsies).