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Posted on Fri. Mar. 21, 2014 - 12:32 am EDT

Magic of Wonka comes to life

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If you go

What: “Willy Wonka”

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; other showtimes are 8 p.m. March 28 and 29 and 2 p.m. March 30

Where: University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center, 431 W. Berry St.

Admission: $18 adults, $15 seniors ages 65 and older and children younger than 18; additional Artstix fee; 422-4226 or go to tickets.artstix.org

The character Willy Wonka is responsible for making generations of fans dream of hot chocolate rivers, taste wild confections and believe in the existence of Oompa Loompas.

Whether you met Mr. Wonka in Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in the 1971 film adaptation starring the darkly funny Gene Wilder, or the 2005 film remake starring an even darker Johnny Depp, Wonka and his factory balance greed, gluttony, laziness and pride with integrity and modesty through every scrumdiddlyumptious turn.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary, the University of Saint Francis and Fort Wayne Youtheatre will perform a collaborative staging of “Willy Wonka” today to engage a new generation of fans.

Children will receive a free DeBrand chocolate treat while the colorful stage offers live action and video.

“What I find exciting about this piece is that a lot of grandparents are going to take their grandkids and parents are going take their kids, because they are familiar with the books and films. It will expose young audiences from 5 to 10, 12 years old to theater, and what a wonderful show it is for them to experience for the first time,” director Brad Beauchamp says. “It’s light and fun and will connect with a broad range of audiences.”

Beauchamp says it took some pure imagination to translate the story to the stage.

“The first act is very monochromatic, there’s a lot of gray, blue and black. When we get to Act 2, I want that ‘Oh, wow’ from the audience when the gate goes up,” he says. “The light changes, and there are changes of color and fantasy onstage. It’s kind of like when Dorothy (from the film ‘Wizard of Oz’) opens the door from a black-and-white film to color.”

Beauchamp says the cast filmed segments that will be displayed on a large screen. The short clips will be news announcements throughout the first act, which Beauchamp says will hopefully keep young viewers engaged.

“We’re trying to make it entertaining for our young audience members,” he says. “We really wanted to keep that in mind as we merged live action and video. It’s kind of exciting and stimulating.”

There are nearly 80 Oompa Loompa actors ranging from ages 6 to 17 scheduled to perform during the show’s run. Leslie Hormann, executive director for Fort Wayne Youtheatre, says collaborative opportunities help Youtheatre offer experience on different stages outside of Arts United Center. Youtheatre also collaborated with IPFW for the production of “Oliver” during the 2012-13 season.

“A lot of our older actors plan to join a university-level theater program, and it gives them a taste of what they have to offer,” she says. “Financially, it’s very practical because we share the costs. We couldn’t do the full musical on our own; it’s cost-prohibitive for us.”

The show focuses on Charlie Bucket, a virtuous child from humble beginnings who wins the final golden ticket to visit the eccentric and secretive Willy Wonka with four other children. Wonka, who detests “ugliness,” has to put up with the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled brat Veruca Salt, insufferable gum-chewer Violet Beauregard and television-obsessed Mike Teavee as he guides them through the greatest chocolate factory in the world.

Along the tour, the children and their parents quickly learn that Wonka’s factory is colorful, tasty and awfully dangerous. While some of the children’s antics end with them stuck up a pipe, dropped down a chute and unexplainably juiced, it is Bucket’s moral core that makes him the unsuspecting hero.

“In as much as it is a kid’s show, when you really peel back the onion, it’s pretty deep,” Beauchamp says. “The Oompa Loompas are actually the moral storytellers. When you really look at it, there’s some wonderful stories in there.”

Dahl, also the English author of the 1961 classic “James and the Giant Peach,” first began writing stories for adult audiences after his recovery from a crash landing during World War II as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. By the late 1950s, Dahl had written “Someone Like You” and “Kiss Kiss.” But it was the whimsical worlds and characters he created in his children’s books that were praised by critics and young readers alike.

Hormann says “Willy Wonka” is just as relevant in today’s culture as ever.

“It’s very humorous, and it’s uncharacteristically sentimental. It’s great for adults, too, because there is some dark humor, and the children are kind of the villains,” Hormann says. “Long before reality TV and social media, Dahl spoke of a child’s demise because of too much TV. Now it’s 50 times worse with helicopter parents and overindulged children. The book is very ahead of its time.”

kcarr@jg.net


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