Imagine a show with a cast of the cutest kids possible, talented adults playing their parents and adorable old folks, and one eccentric candy maker, plus plenty of great singing and dancing, and you’ve got a good picture of the Acadia Community Theater’s spring show, “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, opening this Friday, April 8, at Mount Desert Island High School.
As one would expect, a recent rehearsal revealed a few rough edges that should be polished up by opening night. But most of all, that rehearsal showed what a fantastic time the whole crew is having, even though it was 7:30 p.m. after a long school day. There was not a grumpy Gus in the whole gang, except when being grumpy was part of the show. The rehearsal also showed what a great time the audiences are going to have watching them all perform.
And really, it’s no wonder, with Mike Perlman and Annie Leonardi-Merchant, two former MDI High School Higgins-Demas stage stars, directing the show.
But one thing did not go as the directors expected, but even that turned out alright. The man chosen to play Willy Wonka had to drop out a couple months into rehearsal. So, in addition to Perlman taking his first turn as stage director and having to wrangle about 25 rambunctious children in the cast, he took over the adult lead.
“Annie and I thought about finding someone new, but with only one more month of rehearsals to go, the obvious choice was for me to take on the role,” Perlman said.
So he added learning lines and dance steps to everything else he had to do as director of a major musical show.
“I went into this with some real trepidation,” Perlman admitted. “Especially the kids thing, which was scary for me. In the beginning, it was absolute madness. But these kids have been wonderful. I love every one of them; they really helped me get over my fears. I realized very soon that all the video directing I’ve been doing since high school was excellent preparation for this.”
Actually, his video experience is coming in handy, too. Perlman said he has incorporated some green-screen technology into the show.
Anyone who remembers Perlman’s zany high school videos and stage performances, or has seen his equally fun commercials for the SPCA and local businesses, or perhaps caught his nationally televised audition for “So You Think You Can Dance” or “American Idol,” knows that the role of the charismatic candy maker is a perfect fit. It’s a pity, however, that there isn’t also a good singing role in this play for Leonardi-Merchant to slip into as well.
Although Perlman was suffering from a head cold at this rehearsal, he looked perfect for the part, and his young costars clearly adore acting with him.
And speaking of young costars, one thing that went extraordinarily right from the get go was finding a child who could handle the part of Charlie Bucket, a sweet kid who finds a golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
“When Harlan Mahoney came in to audition, Annie and I just looked at each other and mouthed ‘wow,’” Perlman recalled.
Harlan is only eight years old, but he can sing, act and memorize lines and blocking like a pro, said Perlman. What’s more, with his riot of dark curly hair and big gray eyes, he looks like one of Raphael’s cherubs, perfect for the angelic role.
Perlman and Leonardi-Merchant also lucked out with the other kids in major roles: Zoe Boland as the demanding Verruca, Erin Hollis as the gum snapping Violet, a very padded Peter Benson as the compulsive eater Augustus and Rex Demuro as the screen addict Mike Teavee. Each of these young actors has a clear understanding of their characters and embraces their various obnoxious personality traits with gusto. Leonardi-Merchant has them singing with gusto, too, and while some of these younger cast members still have to work on projecting their solos, their chorus work has plenty of tuneful power.
The play’s opening weekend will be performed at the high school, but Perlman said he is especially excited that they will move to the Criterion Theatre for the final two performances, on April 15 and 16.
“I’ve loved that theater since I was a kid,” Perlman said, “So it’s exciting to be bringing this show there, but not without its challenges.”
Most of those challenges have to do with lighting. While the high school has a fully developed light and sound system, Perlman and his tech crew are still figuring out how to work with the more limited resources at the Criterion.
Considering all the problem-solving and trouble-shooting he’s done thus far, it’s a pretty sure bet that Perlman will figure this one out as well.
Performances will be at MDI High School Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 10, at 2 p.m. The following weekend, “Willy Wonka” will be performed at the Criterion Theatre on Friday, April 15, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 16, at 2 p.m.
Tickets cost $15 for adults, $10 for seniors or those 12 and under. Admission is free for children under age two.