CYT’s ‘Willy Wonka junior’ a whimsical visit to a colorful candy land
By Marilyn Jozwik
Published May 27, 2019
“Willy Wonka Junior,” presented by Christian Youth Theatre (CYT) at the Schauer Arts Center in Hartford, plays like a fantasy in a wonderland of candy.
But sprinkled into Roald Dahl’s delicious story are childhood lessons that visitors to Wonka’s chocolate factory learn the hard way. With its array of big ensemble numbers and positive youthful messages it is the perfect vehicle for this huge cast (83!) to ride.
CYT’s version, directed by Amy Paxton, assembled a fine bunch of young actors to portray the principals in the show, including the winners of Golden Tickets that allow them a tour of the confection nirvana as well as a year’s worth of Wonka’s chocolates, prizes coveted by youngsters in the story.
The story takes a most delightful turn when Wonka, portrayed with a smooth élan by Dan Canadas, makes an inauspicious entrance, tumbling gracefully down the stairs as the youngsters begin their adventurous tour.
Before Wonka appears, we meet Charlie Bucket (Mitchell Anderson), whose poor family – which includes his parents (Gabriella Blatt-Prevatt and Jacob Franz), Grandpa Joe (David Wagenknecht},Grandpa George (Spencer Anderson), Grandma Georgiana (Isabel Kabara) and Grandma Josephina (Paisley Clement) - is celebrating his birthday with a Wonka chocolate bar that his whole family hopes will contain a Golden Ticket. There’s some cute upper body choreography with the supposedly elderly grandparents in this charming scene.
Choreographer Melanie Champ-Heroux definitely had her hands full with this volume of dancers. The smaller numbers, not surprisingly, contained the crisper dancing. It certainly is a challenge to get several dozen dancers in sync, but these kids did quite well in the big numbers, like the openings of Act 1 and 2.
Charlie eventually finds a Golden Ticket and joins four other elated youngsters – Augustus Gloop (Cavan Fuller), Veruca Salt (Emily Streubing), Violet Beauregarde (Ella Connelly) and Mike Teavee (Orlando Corchado) -- on the candy factory tour.
In Act I, the palette is mostly neutral with Charlie, his family and most of the neighborhood kids dressed in bland shades. But in Act 2, all that changes as the youngsters enter the colorful world of Willy Wonka’s candy factory
At the start of Act 2, the winning kids and their chaperones begin their tour in a land of “Pure Imagination,” perhaps the loveliest of the Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley tunes delivered so well by the talented Canadas. Dozens of kids bearing huge mullti-hued lollipops and gummies, cotton candy and other confections dance and swirl about in a wonderfully staged number.
The youngsters all reveal unpleasant sides to their personalities, which the young performers play with over-the-top delight. Fuller’s Augustus has a crystalline singing voice to go along with his chubby, gluttonous character while Struebing’s Veruca is the ultimate of a spoiled-rotten child, stomping and storming about until she gets her way. Connelly’s gum-chewing Violet assumes all kinds of insolent poses and lip-smacking to accompany her Southern accent. TV-addicted Mike gets a boost from Corchado with a high energy portrayal.
After each child gets his/her comeuppance at the hands of Wonka, the charming Oompa-Loompas – Wonka’s work force -- take the stage to sing and dance a lesson in the pitfalls of bad behavior. After Mike Teavee’s misfortune, the eccentric employees proclaim in song: “What do you get from watching TV? A pain in the neck and an IQ of 3.”
Anderson’s Bucket is a delight as Charlie, looking quite grown-up among his childish peers on the tour. Anderson has a sweet voice and demeanor as he navigates successfully Wonka’s “test of character.”
As Tully, Nathan Walla – who was wonderful as the star of CYT’s previous show, “Peter Pan” – is engaging as he towers over the children in their earth-toned outfits, wearing the bright white uniform of the candy seller. He also delivered a fine rendition of the best known tune from the show “The Candy Man.”
Wagenknecht nicely portray Grampa Joe, who pops out of his sickbed to accompany Charlie on his long candy factory tour.
I really enjoyed the mature performances of the youngsters portraying adults, enhanced by make-up and costuming, such as Mackenzie Joranlien as Veruca’s mom. Her snappy outfit and hairstyle gave her a nicely aged look, to add to her fine performance quality.
There were several successful technical aspects to the show, including the bits with reporters (Maddie Cherek and Riley Connelly) interviewing the Golden Ticket winners. The scenes were projected live on a round, table-sized screen as the Camera Operator (Aaron May) was filming live. Nicely done!
Under vocal director Jessica Marks the soloists were all quite good, while the ensembles created good harmonies and sound, though there could have been even more volume.
But so much of the success of this show belongs to Canadas’ portrayal of Wonka. Canadas has created a whimsical Wonka – not a sinister one like I’ve seen in other versions – and can switch from sweet to snarky in an instant. He engages the audience wonderfully and moves with athletic grace.
It’s a shame the show was presented just three times, over the Memorial Day weekend, as it was such an ambitious and successful project.