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Kennedy Center's 'Willy Wonka' Is Simply Sweet

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page C01

If Broadway extravaganzas can be made of "The Lion King" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," then surely it could be done with "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," the slightly sinister and borderline psychedelic 1971 movie about the misadventures of rude kids touring the wildest candy-making plant ever devised. But making supersized imitations of children's films isn't the business of the Kennedy Center's Imagination Celebration series; it specializes in hour-long creations, often thoughtful and literary, for the Lindsay Lohan and "Little House on the Prairie" set.

So the new "Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka" that debuted in the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab over the weekend is aggressively downscale, doing its best (which is generally fine) to make a virtue of make-believe. When the show opens with Stephen F. Schmidt, as the fabulous Willy Wonka, crooning the inviting "Pure Imagination" in a voice that's dark and creamy as fudge, he's caught not in a spotlight but in the beams from flashlights held by fellow actors.

From left, Mike Teavee (Jeffrey Scott Bailey), Willy Wonka (Stephen F. Schmidt) and Charlie Bucket (Flordelino Lagundino) in "Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka." (Carol Pratt -- Kennedy Center)

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Director Graham Whitehead has been given a cast of seven to work with, and he keeps everyone hopping. One moment the performers are playing kids frolicking on the street, revved up on sweets bought from the Candy Man (and surely you remember the irresistibly delicious song that goes here). An instant later, three of those actors are tucked behind a rollaway bed, working the four nearly adult-size puppets that depict the feeble grandparents of our hero, Charlie Bucket.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is the title of the Dahl novel that begat the movie; in film and book, Charlie is the poor but deserving boy who wins one of five golden tickets to visit Wonka's closely guarded factory. This stage adaptation by Leslie Bricusse (who wrote the songs with Anthony Newley) and Tim McDonald sticks to the basic story but injects an odd note of pluck. "Think positive" becomes the Bucket family mantra, and in a ballad sung when Charlie gets implausibly low, he's advised, "Just be glad you're you."

This plaintive homiletic quality provides a "Barney"-worthy yawn; it's bland yogurt against Dahl's bittersweet black comedy. The hallmark of Dahl's fable is its almost viciously moralistic tone as certain rotten kids -- gluttonous Augustus Gloop and shrill Veruca Salt being the most vivid -- get exactly what they deserve.

Enabling parents play a disappointingly diminished role here, too, even though a few of them appear briefly (also as puppets) in some of the score's busier songs. Still, the essentials come through and kids will enjoy most of what's offered, from the portrayal of Oompa-Loompas as wiry little green creatures to the low-tech special effects by set designer James Kronzer.

Schmidt doesn't quite capture Wonka's kaleidoscopic charisma, but he's imperious and a little scary, and his deep voice sounds great.

Flordelino Lagundino makes an ordinary yet likably peppy Charlie, and Jeffrey Scott Bailey turns out to be the funniest thing in the show as Mike Teavee, an updated character who boasts, "I've got the Net, TV and my GameBoy, fool," while joyfully erupting into a catalogue of stupid dance moves from MTV.

Inevitably, this "Wonka" is not as utterly luscious as the longer versions. It's bite-sized, but for the small fry (5 and up is the guideline), that'll do.

Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, adapted for the stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald. Directed by Graham Whitehead. Musical direction, Deborah Wicks La Puma; choreography, Ingrid Zimmer; costume design, Rosemary Pardee; lighting design, Martha Mountain; sound design, Kevin Hill; puppet design, Marie Schneggenburger. With Toni Rae Brotons, Monique L. Midgette, Diego Prieto, and Meghan Touey. Approximately one hour. Through Dec. 26 at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. Call 202-467-4600.

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