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CHILDREN'S THEATER REVIEW : 'Chocolate Factory' Doesn't Melt in Brea Hands : The youth troupe's production is light on details but heavy on comedy in Dahl's tale of kids and just desserts.

August 13, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BREA — Good kids get rewarded. Bad kids get punished. Roald Dahl's moral in his book-turned-film-turned-play, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," would seem to be as simple and pure as, well, a Wonka chocolate bar.

And the first impressions made by Brea's Youth Theatre's production of Richard George's play adaptation are that this will be an easy-to-swallow "Charlie," without the troublesome, darkly ironic qualities that have made Dahl the Samuel Beckett of kiddie lit.

It's no accident, for instance, that the name of Charlie's family is Bucket --one of many sly references that simply fly over even young teens' heads.

The eldest four Buckets, led by Grandpa Joe (Bob May), who encourages Charlie to hope for the best but plan for the worst, haven't been out of bed in 20 years; they're domestic cousins of Beckett's Nagg and Nell sleeping in trash cans in "Endgame." They're even funnier, actually, though director Maria Gam-Hudson should follow Dahl's amusing description and have them sleeping facing each other.

Little details like this are missing from time to time in this staging, but the full brunt of the story finally comes through, and the fun, light approach brightens the darker corners of Dahl's tale.

The result is--like Mel Stuart's amazingly underappreciated movie version with Gene Wilder, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"--a deliciously black comedy no parent should be hesitant to take his or her kids to.

One wondered, in fact, where the kids in Sunday's audience were from; not from Brea, certainly, since it seems that Gam-Hudson has corralled the entire population of Brea youth onto the Curtis Theatre stage.

They're everywhere: singing the melodious "Candyman"; filling the classroom when news comes of Willy Wonka's contest that will change Charlie's life; teeming outside the Wonka chocolate factory gate as the contest winners of the five "golden tickets" begin their Willy-guided tour of the mysterious facility; and jamming the magical factory itself, with dozens of pint-sized Oompa-Loompas singing while they work.

The average age of the Oompa-Loompa group appears to be about 4, and they're fantastically cute in whimsically bouncy (and, alas, uncredited) costumes, but it's not easy to make out what they're singing.

It's important, since each number comes, Greek chorus-style, after each bad child in the factory tour group has been "dispatched" by Wonka (Joe Fletcher).

The messages range from TV's bad side-effects to what happens to bratty spoiled kids, and the Youth Theatre might consider printing the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse lyrics in the program so the messages aren't lost.

Actions speaking louder than words, what happens to these kids--so lucky to win the golden tickets, so unlucky to fall under the devious Wonka's control--make up this show's most vivid passages.

The winners are shown on BREA-TV, with all but Charlie preening for the camera (Lindsey Kraus' loudly effective Violet Beauregarde and Courtney Wagner's screaming brat Veruca Salt are especially obnoxious).

They're all trying to convert their nastiness into fame--something TV-watching kids have seen work too often in real life. All but Charlie, that is. We can't report on how strong a boy hero Dominick Rich is in the alternating cast (performing this weekend's evening shows), but Jonathan Hoover's Charlie needs to grab our attention--and emotions--much more than he does.

He hardly jumps for joy when his dream of a golden ticket comes true, and he's completely upstaged by Kraus, Wagner, Ryan Schneider's comically sluggish Augustus Gloop and Matthew Passalaqua's snappy Mike Teavee, who's the living nightmare of the kid immune to TV violence. Charlie is a good kid, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't engage attention.

Fletcher's Wonka certainly does, decked out in a bright plaid-and-striped suit, with a glint in his eye that just might be evil. His phrasing on the wonderful song "Imagination" is peculiar to say the least, but Fletcher always keeps us guessing about Wonka's motives--an extremely unusual character type in children's theater.

And for a non-professional children's theater company, the visual effects, the factory set in vivid primary colors credited to something called Clowes and Associates, and the singing (memorably by May, Lynn Hough's Mrs. Bucket and Fletcher) are both fun and true to Dahl's vision.

That it can be a dark one as well as hopeful makes this piece one of the most rewarding in the family theater canon.

* "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea. Fridays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 22. $7.50-$9.50. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 2 hours. Joe Fletcher: Willy Wonka

Tom Royer: Candy Man

Jonathan Hoover: Charlie Bucket

Bob May; Grandpa Joe

Lynn Hough: Mrs. Bucket

Ryan Schneider: Augustus Gloop

Judi Kasper: Mrs. Gloop

Courtney Wagner: Veruca Salt

Frank Rich: Mr. Salt

Lindsey Kraus: Violet Beauregarde

Suzanne Rahn: Mrs. Beauregarde

Matthew Passalaqua: Mike Teavee

Richard De Vicariis: Mr. Teavee

Audrey Weidner: Slugworth

A Brea Youth Theatre production. Music and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Book and adaptation by Richard George from the Roald Dahl story. Directed by Maria Gam-Hudson. Choreographed by Gracie Martinez. Set: Clowes and Associates. Lights: Steve Smith. Sound: Jack Clough. Production stage manager: Denise Ward Cradit.

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