CAN YOU LIVE without the river of chocolate?
Tim McDonald hopes so. Audiences at "Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka," a new musical at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, are expected to supply their own. As New York-based playwright McDonald tells it, the musical's collaborators took the lyrics of "Pure Imagination," a song from the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl's tale, to heart. Specifically, its opening line, "Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination."
"When you enter the theater, there's nothing on the stage, and by the time the first number is over, there's a set in front of you," McDonald says. "We're saying, 'We're going to build this world, but we need you to help us.' And that's the unspoken leap of faith that so far the audiences I've seen have all taken with us. They have to lend their energy and their imagination to make it work -- we're not going to give it all to them."
"Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka" features Jeffrey Bailey, left, as Mike, Stephen Schmidt as Willy Wonka and Flordelino Lagundino as Charlie.
And they don't. You won't find the elaborate candyscape that provides the film's centerpiece re-created on stage. Indeed, one of the show's chief pleasures is in trying to anticipate what it will make of the many staging challenges the story presents. Simple solutions take the day: Charlie Bucket flies across the stage atop a wheeled ladder, the shrunken Mike Teavee is represented by a Ken doll, and Violet Beauregarde dons a blueberry suit that resembles an especially unflattering down parka. And for all those disappearances up tubes and down chutes? A wide-mouthed trash can does nicely. This do-it-yourself quality reverberates through the production, whose seven actors also operate puppets, shift scenery and wield the hand-held flashlights that take the place of spotlights.
"If we hide the magic, then you're not using your imagination as much," McDonald says.
As it happens, McDonald is something of an expert at doing a lot with a little. He runs the Broadway Junior Collection, an organization that adapts and condenses American musicals so they can be performed by schoolchildren -- think "Annie Junior" and "Godspell Junior." Broadway Junior has also adapted animated Disney films, such as "Cinderella" and "Aladdin" for young performers. McDonald says every production starts with the same questions. "You always ask, 'How do you do this on stage with kids? On budgets that are the equivalent of what a Broadway show would spend on the lead actor's shoes?' "
McDonald says he had long been interested in a musical version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." But the project was complicated by the fact that the new musical would necessarily combine Dahl's source material and the film score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. "It's an unusual thing because you have a score by Leslie Bricusse and he controls those rights, and you have the Roald Dahl estate, which controls the underlying book," McDonald says. "So we all came together and created what is 'Willy Wonka.' " Having secured the consent of Dahl's estate, McDonald and Bricusse collaborated on the new musical's book, while Bricusse wrote the lyrics and the music for several additional songs. Ultimately, the collaborators produced two versions of their "Willy Wonka" -- a Broadway Junior version for young performers and, at the behest of the Kennedy Center, a second version with adult actors for young audiences. "One grew out of the other," McDonald says.
Though the material is the same, the versions had very different constraints. "If Mrs. Johnson's fifth-grade class is going to produce 'Willy Wonka,' the cast could be 150, and you can have a billion Oompa Loompas and all these other resources," McDonald says. "So you're generally writing for an ever-expandable and scalable show. It's the exact opposite when you're doing theater for young audiences -- we have seven actors, who need to perform, by the time we're done, probably 30 or 35 roles." In this production, each actor averages four parts -- though leading man Stephen Schmidt takes on a whopping six. "If one actor's playing three or four parts, you want to make sure the audience understands that," McDonald says. "Which they do, of course, because they're kids -- they use their imagination all day, it's not until we get older that we just tend to turn that off."
Some of those multiple roles are flesh-and-blood, others papier-mache. The Oompa Loompas, for example, are part rolling office chair, part brightly colored puppet; seated actors move the puppets with their legs, at one point forming a stripe-socked chorus line. "The puppets were a natural idea," McDonald says. "Knowing that we had seven actors, and knowing that we wanted to make the show bigger than what seven actors could do, puppets were a natural thing, especially when you think about the Oompa Loompas." Charlie's bedridden grandparents, Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina, are operated by actors who stand in full view behind the headboard. "For the grandparents, because it's cross-generational, that seemed natural also. It's very believable, and certainly more engaging than putting an actor in old-age makeup," McDonald says. "The other thing is that the theme of the show, the foundation, is the concept of imagination. And when you take an inanimate object and you animate it, everybody has to take a leap of faith."
McDonald says that combining material from such dissimilar sources -- Dahl's book is almost macabre whereas the film version is relentlessly perky -- was tricky. "We really tried to use the book and use Roald Dahl's imagination as our touchstone -- versus the film, which was someone else's interpretation," he says. "Our challenge was to create a live theatrical musical event that satisfied your expectations of the book and the film -- but hopefully gave you another experience also." Appropriately, he chooses a gustatory metaphor in describing his hopes for the production. "That's what we were going for -- that, at the end, you didn't feel disappointed because you missed something, you felt satiated, and perhaps even wanting a little bit more."
"ROALD DAHL'S WILLY WONKA" -- Through Dec. 26 at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. Friday at 7, Saturday at 11 and 1, Sunday at 1. (Additional performances Dec. 22 at 6 and Dec. 23 at 1 and 3; no performances Christmas eve or Christmas Day.) $14. 202-467-4600.