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Nashville Children's Theatre's New Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Fights Off Memories of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp

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One thing the savvy contemporary theater artist has to recognize: Competition for audiences is fiercer than ever, and your work must acknowledge and reflect that. Which helps explain why the Nashville Children's Theatre production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—based on Roald Dahl's classic children's novel, and contending also in the memory with two immensely popular film versions—is a very busy Rube Goldberg contraption of sound, light, TV, video, music, dancing and puppetry, with some old-fashioned character-rich acting providing substance underneath the sugar buzz.

The challenge of bringing to life the vivid imagery of Willy Wonka's confectionary castle is still a test for the stage, especially for any viewer steeped in the famous movies. But half the fun here is watching how director Julee Baber Brooks, her actors and the technical talent pull it off, using Richard R. George's solid adaptation (sanctioned by Dahl's estate) as a stepping stone instead of leaning on the films as a crutch.

Noticeable immediately is the bank of nine television screens downstage right, with the imposing gates of the Wonka compound looming far upstage center. Downstage left serves as home to Charlie Bucket (Patrick Waller), the local lad who learns the story of the mysterious Willy Wonka from his Grandpa Joe (Brian Webb Russell). It is lucky, plucky Charlie who wins a coveted golden ticket in the candy master's international contest, thus gaining him and four other kids access to the fantastic, heavily guarded Wonka factory. 

While missing some of the accoutrements we recall from previous Wonkas Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp—no "fizzy lifting drinks," no chorus of  "The Candy Man"—the tale remains the same, with Bobby Wyckoff's Wonka leading the five winners on a tour that ultimately tests character over instant gratification. It's how director Brooks gets us there that matters. Live action integrates seamlessly with prerecorded video sequences; goofy music derived from various sources conjures '60s spy movie soundtracks and quirkily connects the scenes; strange costumes appear and set pieces fly in and out.

As for the Oompa Loompas, Brooks exploits the latter-day theatrical fascination with hand-and-rod puppets, giving us three identical green creatures—manipulated by Russell, Rona Carter and Kamal Bolden—who function as a kind of Greek chorus, lip-synching to pre-recorded ditties with lyrics derived from the poetry in Dahl's original text. To keep the tale from getting lost in all this whizbangery, an occasional voiceover helps clarify the story threads.

For all its multimedia flair, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still relies critically on its actors—for the regular reasons, yes, but also because there are passages inside Wonka's candyland that technical wizardry just can't evoke. For that, we're urged to—gasp!—use our imaginations. In the pivotal lead, the tall, gangly, well-cast Wyckoff handles the punning, whimsical and often tongue-in-cheek Wonka dialogue with subtlety. If anything, he's almost too subtle: He could push his flamboyant character forward a bit more to compete with the surrounding whirlwind. But his work embodies Dahl's playfully subversive means of reaching the message that virtue triumphs.

Elsewhere, the ensemble of nine—including Samuel Whited, Brooke Bryant, Misty Lewis and Ross Brooks—deftly reinforces the magic and does well switching gears with their diverse multiple roles. Deserving of special kudos are designer Patricia Taber, for her colorful costumes and puppets, and Josh Danger, who did the video work under the director's supervision. 

Director Brooks' "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach is highly successful, even though this ambitious effort comes so heavily trafficked with moving parts that very young theatergoers could get overwhelmed. (Or worse—bored.) Happily, the rest of us with limited attention spans—but who can still follow a story—stay engaged almost all the time, even as we fight flashbacks to Wonkas past and recent. In its best moments, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is like everything the Candy Man bakes: satisfying and delicious.

Trojan ultra thin
For the second consecutive show, ACT I delves into the classics. Although it earns commendation for sincerely rendered effort, their new production of Euripides' The Trojan Women offers little to distinguish itself, with the exception of two strong performances.

Under the uninspired direction of Pete Hiett, a mostly callow group of players somberly, sometimes awkwardly, relates the timeworn tale of history written by the losers, as the wives and daughters of the defeated Trojans lament their bitter fate. Meigie Mabry as Hecuba, wife of the slain King Priam, endures the heaviest burdens of character while dolorously hammering out speeches punctuated by the phrase, "Woe is me!" Her game effort mostly plummets with the play's pathos rather than soaring with its drama.  Yet Jes Mercer delivers an elegant, lithe portrayal of the cursedly prescient Cassandra, infusing a sense of resigned wonder into the role instead of the more typical hyperactive madness. And as Andromache, Kendra Ford also performs capably, offering stoic strength and a clear grasp of the formal language. For all its angst, the evening agreeably comes in well under two hours. Thank Zeus for small favors. The Trojan Women continues through Dec. 6 at the Darkhorse Theater. 

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