Although the title might imply differently, "Willy Wonka" (based on Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Charlie Factory" and turned into a musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) is not about the enigmatic candyman. And despite the highly pronounced downfalls of the aggressively wicked children who tour Wonka's candy factory, "Willy Wonka" is not about treating your elders with respect, being a good person, or doing the right thing.
Instead, it's a story about hope and dreaming, and Dahl's classic novel became so famous because the audience derives an inexplicable pleasure from watching childhood pipedreams come true. We stare in amazement as Charlie Bucket, a pure and lovable schoolboy, transcends poverty and becomes an international candy mogul. Wonka lends his name to the title, but "Willy Wonka" is really a musical about Charlie Bucket, and West Mifflin Area High School does an excellent job at highlighting this.
Of course, "Willy Wonka" is nothing without a strong Charlie Bucket, and senior Jason Cuban plays the role with a deft blend of confidence and hesitation. Cuban lets his vocal tone do all the work, wavering effortlessly between optimistic and hopeless to evoke a great deal of sympathy. What's important about Cuban's performance, though, is that he never makes the audience pity Charlie. He delivers every bit of dialogue with a silver lining, and even painfully blunt songs like "Think Positive" reinforce "Willy Wonka's" fairytale moral: no matter the circumstances, your dreams are within your reach.
Ultimately, "Willy Wonka" is a comedy, and West Mifflin's production constantly reminds the audience of this, primarily in the form of Charlie's four fellow factory tourists. By now, they've become household names: the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, the snotty Veruca Salt, the blissfully ignorant Violet Beauregarde, and the overstimulated Mike Teevee. Junior Jesse Graham, who plays Teevee, gives a particularly inspired performance, capturing perfectly his character's apathy and hopeless obsession with the media. Since so much of the show's comedy is fueled by exaggeration and social stereotypes (Violet, for example, is the show's "lazy American": a gum-chewing, sweatsuit-donning teenager), it's a gift to the audience that the cast members fuse personalities with their characters so well.
The greatest challenge of adapting "Willy Wonka" to the high school stage is one that West Mifflin tackles with utter confidence: reproducing the grand and fantastical scenery of both Dahl's novel and the "Willy Wonka" film, on a budget. While the sets lack extravagance, they compensate for their shortcomings with quirks that reinforce some of the musical's themes and motifs. Take, for example, the Bucket family house in its minimalist glory. The piece barely contains the seven Buckets, brutally reinforcing the fact that their financial situation isn't so great. And although their slapstick routine gets a little tired by their second scene or so, Charlie's grandparents, bedridden and all, really embody the domestic spirit that gives "Willy Wonka" so much mass appeal.
By selecting a show as familiar as "Willy Wonka," West Mifflin took a gamble, practically begging for comparisons, but the cast delivered a fresh, lively take on a universal childhood favorite. Even if it was only for a few nights, they transformed their high school into just the kind of indulgent Candy Land that Wonka himself operates. They even sold "Wonka Bars" at the concession stands. That's commitment.
West Mifflin's "Willy Wonks" ran March 15-17, 2013.
The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools. Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson, a long-time Kelly Awards judge.