by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD and Theron Raymond (5th grader)
Little Lake Theatre Company presents Willy Wonka Jr., the shortened musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Junior version is geared for ages 3+.
Kathy Hawk not only directs the ensemble cast of children, but along with assistant director, Samantha Hawk, Kathy co-costume designs the production. Wrangling a large cast of child actors is never easy. The Hawk women create order from chaos. The children are purposeful in their entrances and exits. However, some could have used microphones as the music sometimes drowns out their softer speaking and singing voices.
Hawk embraces gender-neutral casting, which enhances the play’s richness. Willy Wonka, the Candy Man, Augustus Gloop, and Charlie are all female. My 11-year old co-reviewer embraced this as well, noting that “all of the actors embraced their characters and fit.” Willy Wonka (Lila McClelland) evokes a jaunty showwoman in Hawk’s costume of a top hat and vibrant purple jacket with tails.
The Candy Man is sympathetically played by Ava Arnold. Hawk appropriately costumes her in a cheerful yellow overcoat as her entrances excite the neighborhood kids. She gifts the poverty-stricken Charlie (Ember Carmichael) with “extra” candy and surreptitiously drops a nickel for Charlie to discover so she can buy a chocolate bar. The candy man is a testimony to the power of people who are a casual part of our lives but positively influence us as they choose to lead with kindness.
Hawk continues the vibrancy with the Oompa Loompas. This diminutive workforce is well-represented by child actors and is visually united with their green hair, green heart-shaped sunglasses, and suspenders. The Oompa Loompas have long been controversial in origin. This version leans into the mythology as Charlie Bucket and family suspect them to be “zombie workers.” It’s the only reasonable origin story for Wonka’s factory employees given the doors are locked and no one enters or exits. Wonka crisply clarifies they are “refugees,” giving the candymaker an air of magnanimity.
Act two opens with the five lucky children who found the Golden Tickets (each with a guardian) gathered at Wonka’s factory. As each new ticket is found, prop designer Sylvia Sims-Linkish and lighting designer Nicole White collaborate to illuminate each child’s name over one of the four entrances and exits to this theatre in the round. Each child’s name is literally “in lights” as they find one of the five golden tickets that guarantee both a tour of Wonka’s factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Charlie finds the final ticket. Charlie’s name illuminates on the wall of the ramshackle apartment where the Bucket family of seven lives. Charlie is gifted two Wonka bars on her birthday. Hawk has her hold them in pause, eyes closed and head tilted back slightly. It evokes the gleeful mental frolics of holding a lottery ticket for a massive Powerball draw. The “what if” is a dreamy escape where one wants to linger because you know the odds are against you, so that moment of dreaming is likely as close as you’ll get.
Mirroring the book and film, each of the five children fail what is ultimately revealed by Wonka to have been a “test of character.” Charlie humbly admits failure as she departs with her Grandpa Joe (gleefully played by Dylan Lawton). Kathy Hawk directs McClelland to a perfect wide grin in response, which much of the audience sees before she spins to face Charlie and declare her the “heir” to the Wonka factory. The family-minded Charlie wants to ensure inclusion of her family before accepting the offer, earning her another gold star in the character test. Dahl’s journey of good character winning out is a beautiful reminder of core values and a counterbalance to the cynicism we sometimes slip into too easily
-TKR, Ph.D. and TR
“Willy Wonka, Jr.” runs from August 17 until August 27 at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For more information, click here.