Fans of the show “American Idol” know that the key to a successful performance is choosing the right song. Well, the same holds true for amateur theater. Picking a play that recognizes both the strengths and limitations of a community’s resources of talent and enthusiasm should be the number one priority.
Acadia Community Theater’s current performance of “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” which runs though this weekend, couldn’t have been a better choice.
This quirky, fun musical based on Dahl’s book and the movie “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” opened last weekend at Mount Desert Island High School and moves to the Criterion in Bar Harbor this Friday and Saturday.
While challenging on many levels – especially the production aspects with multiple scene changes and special lighting effects – it also has all the elements necessary for success: a great story, fabulous characters of all ages, engaging songs and a community full of talented children and grown-ups who were willing and able to put in the time and effort to learn their songs, lines, dances and characters. And the show benefits from having two directors, Michael Perlman and Annie Leonardi-Merchant, who are graduates of the excellent MDI High theater program. They bring their experience and especially their high expectations to this production.
Perlman also had to take over the role of Willy Wonka and did a fine job in the Gene Wilder tradition of underplaying the part, making the chocolatier peculiar but never creepy. His singing is great, too.
But Perlman’s and Leonardi-Merchant’s greatest achievement is wrangling a cast of 25 or so youngsters – including Clementine Mislang, the most adorable three-year-old Oompa Loompa imaginable – into a cohesive cast of singers, dancers and actors. They manage complicated steps, harmonies and syncopation and also seem to be having a terrific time.
In addition to the delicious choruses of candy kids, Oompa Loompas and nut-cracking squirrels, there are four of the most engaging young talents.
It starts with the remarkable Harlan Mahoney as Charlie Bucket, the last kid to find a golden ticket to tour the chocolate factory. This eight-year-old is a natural performer who never once broke character, muffed a line or looked anything but supremely comfortable in the spotlight. He really lights up the stage when he sings, revealing an impressive vocal range and preternatural musicality.
Peter Benson seems to be having such a blast in his fat suit as Augustus Gloop one can’t help grinning along with him when he sings about the delights of overeating. His enabling, doting mama Rose Iuro-Damon is a hoot and a half, with a terrific voice, too.
Zoe Boland is so perfectly loud and obnoxious as spoiled brat Veruca Salt.
One of several sound system glitches Saturday night caused her microphone to fail during “I Want it Now.” This didn’t phase her a jot. She just belted it out louder, managing to make herself heard even from far upstage.
Jason Beckwith was perfect as Veruca’s over-indulgent checkbook-wielding dad. Excellent Aussie accent by the way.
Another great belter is Erin Hollis as the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde. This girl has a lot of stage experience for a nine-year-old, and it shows. No matter what was going on onstage, this girl stayed in character, furiously chomping away and looking peeved.
As her mom, Stephanie Clement was hysterically funny.
As the dotty grandparents, Mark Carrignan, Laura Levin, Tony St. Denis and Sara White, are great fun – especially White, who constantly has to holler to her deaf husband. Carrignan as Grandpa Joe gets to go along on Charlie’s adventure. Mallory Watkins as Charlie’s mother couldn’t have been more perfectly cast, with her winsome presence and lovely soprano voice. Her duet with her son “Cheer up Charlie” is a tearjerker.
But back to those kids.
As the screen addicted Mike Teavee, Rex Demuro is totally believable and recognizable. He commands every scene he is in – especially his song “I See It All on TV.”
As his ditzy, flirty mom, Jenni Mae Parker is also right on the mark. Her tango with the TV announcer Phinneas Trout (a perfectly cast Jonathan Bender) is hilarious.
And boy, it has been too long since Thomas Van Gorder has graced our local stage. As a youngster, he wowed audiences as a soprano in “Amahl and the Night Vistors” and “Sound of Music.” Though his voice has changed, his talent is still top notch. He is so scrumptious as the Candy Man, one only wishes he had more songs in this show.
Producer Doug Van Gorder assembled a blue ribbon team when it comes to adding production value. The costumes – absolutely loved those Oompa Loompas and Violet’s blueberry dress! – sets, stage dressing, graphics and props are all just wonderful. With the exception of some scratchy and uncooperative microphones, the technical aspects are wonderful too, including a psychedelic boat ride, a gondola trip and, perhaps for the first time ever on this stage, a green screen video that is a highlight of the show.
The pit orchestra under Leonardi-Merchant’s direction was fine, too, and never overwhelmed the singers.
It all adds up to one terrific, crowd-pleasing show, which should be especially thrilling at the Criterion, especially with that theater’s excellent live acoustics.
The final two performances at the Criterion are 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.
Tickets for Criterion Theatre performances may be reserved at www.criteriontheatre.org. Tickets also will be available at the door.
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