Willy Wonka at Berkeley Playhouse: An enchanting ride

Vernon Bush, center, gives a standout performance as the title character in “Willy Wonka” at the Berkeley Playhouse. Photo: Larry Abel

By Hannah Long

Berkeley Playhouse’s new production “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Elizabeth McKoy, is an entertaining and touching show that will appeal to kids and adults alike.

Based on Roald Dahl’s classic book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it follows young Charlie as he finds a rare golden ticket hidden in a bar of chocolate. With this ticket, he gets the opportunity to meet the famous candy connoisseur Willy Wonka and tour his remarkable factory. With a standout performance by Vernon Bush as Willy Wonka, creatively bold sets and costumes, and an enthusiastic cast of professional actors and children, this production measures up to the many past screen and stage adaptations.

The show begins with Bush, dressed as Wonka in a vibrant, sparkly outfit and elevated in the air, alone on stage singing the beloved classic “Pure Imagination.” His smooth and soulful voice resonates throughout the playhouse and invites the audience into the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.

As the play goes on, Bush’s spirited and confident performance steals the show. Reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s creepily friendly rendition of Wonka in Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation, Bush is intriguingly nonchalant. This comes across for instance in his blasé attitude towards slightly gruesome events, for instance when a young boy is sucked away into a pipe of chocolate. The mature complexity that Bush displays will interest an adult audience members, yet his carefree attitude will draw in children more than Depp’s unsettling rendition.

Comic relief comes from Charlie’s four grandparents in “Willy Wonka”. Photo: Larry Abel

This appealing intricacy is unfortunately lacking in the show’s other characters; however, even the more shallow performances are still entertaining. Of the kids accompanying Charlie on his tour, Aubri No’eau Kahalekuku stands out as Violet, sassy with a country accent and incessant gum-chewing. Comic relief comes from Charlie’s four grandparents, especially near-deaf Grandpa George (Chad Dickerson). And finally, nine year old Dakota Dry brings impressive talent and enthusiasm to her role as Charlie. Always hopeful, her character radiates joy and brings a smile to the audience, especially when singing the upbeat song “Think Positive.”

The production is heightened by energetic dancing, aerial gymnastics, and creative special effects. In one scene, Charlie and his grandfather (aided by bungee cords) appear to float and leap through the air, intoxicated by Wonka’s magic fizz potion. Integral to the storyline is also the brightly colored, multi-tiered set, which is the perfect backdrop for Wonka’s intricate, maze-like factory. If anything, the show’s visual effects are so consistently enrapturing that the scenes in the factory, which should be especially magical, fail to really stand out. Completing the look are costume designer Wes Crain’s vintage-inspired creations, which are colorful, dramatic, and true to the story’s 1970s roots.

With this mix of vibrant, captivating visuals and complex, touching performances, the Playhouse’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” takes audience members on a sweet and enchanting ride.

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” runs through August 19 at the Julia Morgan Theatre on College Avenue. For information visit Berkeley Playhouse.

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