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A Modern Twist on a Candy Classic

Cottage Theatre stages fun, non-horrifying Willy Wonka

“I hope you don’t start screaming in the middle of it,” my son says, almost as an afterthought as we walk into the theater. Me too.

Roald Dahl’s cautionary tale of greed, gluttony and bad parenting scares the snot out of me, and after two radically unsuccessful attempts by my parents to help me enjoy the film ended in fits of horrified hysteria, we all happily gave up. And so long as nobody ever mentions Gene Wilder I’m perfectly fine.

My children, on the other hand, have both read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory independently as part of this year’s Oregon Battle of the Books. They discuss the motivations of Augustus Gloop, debate how long Violet Beauregarde would be able to chew a particular piece of gum and run around the house pretending to be Oompa Loompas when they want to annoy their momma.

We took our seats with wildly differing expectations.

Director Janet Rust has taken Dahl’s directive to heart and asks the audience to lean heavily on their own imaginations. Judicious use of projections and sound effects inspired by Rube Goldberg set the mood without overwhelming the senses. Rust’s set is wonderfully creative, suggestive of chocolate rivers rather than threatening with them. Actors are asked to act rather than rely on mechanical devices to help them fly or expand into a blueberry.

The children who make up the majority of the cast are delightful. George Schroeder is a wonderful Charlie Bucket. Mathew Goes, Megan Schneider, Mandy Conforth and Alayna Pearson were perfectly bratty as the golden ticket holders. Several members of the children’s chorus stand out as well. My daughter and I particularly liked the squirrels. 

Rust does a nice job of highlighting the adult humor as well. Keith Kessler makes a soulful Grandpa Joe, and Shannon Coltrane is lovely as Mrs. Bucket. Angela Pearson, Karen Warren Snyder and Mandy Conforth exhibit the foibles of bad parenting brilliantly.

Willy Wonka is played as a woman by Tracy Nygard. She is authoritative without that possibly-a-really-creepy-dictator feel. In short, she seems exactly like the sort of oddball genius that could create a candy empire.

This adaptation of the story has been updated. Mike Teevee (played as Mika in this production by Megan Schneider) has added cell phones and a game boy to his addiction, with his mother trailing along, texting constantly. I enjoyed the updates and found them funny but my purist son took issue with the changes.

Rarely do my children and I agree on the worth of a play, yet this was the first of many, many shows that we’ve been to as a family where we all sat spellbound. Willy Wonka truly is a show for the whole family.

Willy Wonka runs 8 pm, Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 pm, Sundays through Dec. 23, at the Cottage Theatre, $16-$21.