Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans get ready for one “Weil”d December. This month legendary South Jersey community theatre director Matt Weil is directing not one, but TWO shows for the Holiday Season. Talk about a gift for audiences. This reviewer attended the first, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, at Haddonfield Plays and Players on December 7th.

Several weeks ago Director Weil spoke with your correspondent. When asked if he directs Holiday shows any differently than he approaches others, Mr. Weil replied, “No. The purpose is to tell a story.” And what a story he and the cast at Haddonfield Plays and Players told.

Willy Wonka (played by Tommy Balne) faced a dilemma. He longed to retire from the chocolate business. His lack of either an heir or a successor forced him to continue working.

Young Charlie Bucket (played by Matthew Goodrich) also experienced troubles. His family lacked money. His father’s (Michael Wemer) job at the toothpaste factory provided the household’s only source of income. This extended family consisted of Mrs. Bucket (Marissa Wolf) and both sets of Charlie’s grandparents. Then the toothpaste factory closed.

In the wake of this, Willy Wonka announced a contest. The winners would receive tours of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. The contestants needed to find one of five golden tickets placed in packets of Wonka Bars. In spite of his poverty, Charlie found the means to purchase one bar. It contained a winning ticket.

The show opened with Tommy Balne delivering a beautiful version of “Pure Imagination.” That theme continued throughout the evening. Director Matt Weil deserves immense credit for the ingenuity he applied to this project. He took a piece with the spectacular visuals audiences remember from the 1971 film and made it just as memorable on the stage. Mr. Weil also executed this task with minimal scenery. The set itself (also designed by Mr. Weil) consisted of a checkerboard floor and a series of bay openings with flashing lights.

Without the accoutrements of a fantastic confection producing paradise, the suspension of the audience’s disbelief became an immediate challenge for the cast. The performers showed superlative acting ability to create the illusion. The actors’ expressions and reactions reflected the grandeur and wonder of the chocolate factory. The performers also showed fear and rocked to simulate the motion of the boat as Willy led them down the river into the unknown.

Willy Wonka did not lack for special effects, however. Violet Beauregarde (played by Sophie Holliday) turned into a blueberry. The crew executed this task by inflating her costume and through a creative use of lighting. When Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Tony Killian) floated towards the ceiling, Mr. Weil and his team used an innovative means of presenting this scene on the stage. The bubbles added a nice touch.

In the playbill, Mr. Weil described his initial reluctance over directing Willy Wonka:

Frivolous, saccharine, and lacking in in any major substance, Willy Wonka represented everything I was taught to avoid as an artist – or so I thought.                 

The show did contain similarities to Mr. Weil’s other work. For one, the story contained characters just as gluttonous and socially maladjusted as those in The Heiress and The Pillowman.

The kids who found the golden tickets were not ideal children. Veruca Salt (Cassidy Scherz) was even more spoiled than a Siamese kit kat. Her father (Cory Laslocky) enabled her by believing every day was payday and he could buy anything his little girl wanted.  Augustus Gloop (Dominick T. McNew, Jr.) ate to the extent that he made those suffering from hyperphagia seem like vegan dieters. It took three cooks to prepare his feasts. His ebullient mother (Faith McCleery) encouraged him in his gastronomical pursuits. Mike Teavee’s (Jake Gilman) appetite for television eclipsed Gloop’s hunger for food. His mother (Victoria Tatulli) kept him out of school so he could focus on his interest in television. This group made Violet Beauregarde the most normal member of the bunch. She had an addiction to chewing gum. Her Southern belle mom (Lori Alexio Howard) allowed her to do so as often as she liked.

Phineous Trout (Alex Leavitt) played the reporter tasked with interviewing these lucky “winners.” Mr. Leavitt’s caricaturish grin, initial enthusiasm and later astonishment with these characters drew snickers from the audience.

The Oompa-Loompas provided commentary on the children’s behavior. Performers Abigail Brown, Lorelei Ohnishi, Nathan Laslocky, Logan Murphy, Sera Scherz and Gabriel Werner played the roles of Willy Wonka’s factory workers. They performed fantastic renditions of the “Oompa-Loompa” songs while executing Katharina Muniz’s choreography. Costumer Renee McCleery and Assistant to the Costumer Jenn Doyle designed authentic looking garb for these iconic characters.

Tommy Balne turned in one of the best performances your reviewer has seen on this side of the Milky Way. Mr. Balne possesses a phenomenal ability to talk with his eyes. His communicative facial expressions were so proficient that your correspondent would’ve been just as entertained watching him all evening.

The role required some physical adeptness. Mr. Balne also executed these challenges without flaw. One of the demands included the ability to twirl a cane. Mr. Balne didn’t have butterfingers. He utilized the prop brilliantly all evening.

In addition to his expressive mannerisms, Mr. Balne proved himself a stellar triple threat. Besides the lead role, he also played the character of The Candy Man. As with his rendition of “Put on A Happy Face” in Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Balne took a theatrical standard and infused it with his own personality. Besides his awesome vocal stylings, he completed an outstanding dance routine with Tess Smith, Michael Thompson, Leah Cedar and Quinn Wood while delivering the popular tune: “The Candy Man.”

The scene reminded this reviewer of a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Another famous “Candy Man” crooner hosted it on The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. Mr. Rich joked to Mr. Davis, Jr. that the winner should receive one of Mr. Davis, Jr.’s shoes. After his performance in Willy Wonka, one of Mr. Balne’s shoes would’ve been a better prize than the tour of factory or a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Matthew Goodrich also performed outstanding song and dance routines. His execution of the “Think Positive” sequence made for one of the show’s most memorable moments. Mr. Goodrich completed some intricate twirls that added superb showmanship to the scene.

Performers Marge Triplo and Lori Clark also added their talents to this extensive cast.

Other members of the Production Team included: Assistant Director Melissa Harnois, Producer Megan Knowlton Balne, Vocal Director Kendra C. Heckler, Stage Manager Sara Viniar, Assistant Stage Manager Brennan Diorio, Set Construction Dan Boris, Lighting Designer Jen Donsky and Props Designer Debbie Mitchell.

South Jersey community theatre aficionados will feel glad Mr. Weil decided to add Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka to his repertoire. He wrote:

Today, my assumption is that you may be sitting there feeling very much the same way I felt one year ago. My hope is that our show will tickle and delight you, that you may take a similar journey as my own, and that you will find Willy Wonka simple, sweet and satisfying – like a bite of chocolate.

The “Weil”d December continues at the Ritz Theatre Company. The director’s next Holiday project is Scrooge: The Musical. That show runs from December 12th through December 22nd.

Audiences don’t need to win a golden ticket at one in ten million odds to see Willy Wonka. It runs through December 21st. After that, the chocolate factory closes forever at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

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