Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: 'Willy Wonka' amps up the cool quotient for Children's Theatre staff

Steve Wrightson plays the title character in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at Lexington Children's Theater.
Steve Wrightson plays the title character in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at Lexington Children's Theater.

Many people spend their days in downtown Lexington offices crunching numbers, manipulating the English language and engaging in strategy sessions. The folks at Lexington Children's Theatre solve problems like how to turn an actor into a blueberry and make pink squirrels come to life on stage.

"Even in my job, where I spend most of my days writing checks, people will come ask me to help build a blueberry, and then I've spent half an hour working on a blueberry," says Lesley Farmer, managing director at the Children's Theatre.

Resident designer and costume director Eric Abele says, "I absolutely love to talk about my job on Facebook because I get to say, 'Today, I reinforced blue hammers for pink squirrels, and I have the coolest job in the world,' because I do."

These days, the Children's Theatre staff has put the coolness into overdrive in preparing for its ninth annual summer family musical: Willy Wonka.

Although the Children's Theatre and Roald Dahl's classic children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been around for decades, this is the first time the two have met in a full-blown LCT production.

A big reason, co-director Jeremy Kisling says, is the many challenges that Dahl's story presents to a stage adaptation.

True, there have been two movies, the latest being the 2005 Tim Burton version, which took full advantage of current CGI technology. But tricks like turning an actor into a blueberry — which happens to Violet, one of the five children touring the factory, when she chews gum she isn't supposed to — on film is far different from doing the same thing on stage.

"It needed to be quick, it needed to be easy for someone to manipulate, it needed to appear out of nowhere, it needed to go away really quickly and it needed to be huge," Abele says. "So we actually had a lot of meetings to determine what this thing could actually be, and the thing we came upon was the idea of a paper lantern."

You know paper lanterns. They're flat and innocuous, but when you open them and put them around lights, they can completely change the character of a room.

Still, even after they arrived at that solution, there were more meetings, a "Barbie doll model" of the costume, and one failed attempt at the costume before the full-size, fully functional version was ready.

Other challenges included the chocolate river that Wonka and the children navigate in a pink candy boat, and the squirrels that Veruca Salt attempts to steal.

One thing that Kisling says has gotten easier over time is sucking Mike, one of the characters, into a television. But overall, he and co-director Amie Dunn wanted to avoid leaning on technology to solve their problems.

"The biggest thing for us is we can't do the movie," Kisling says. "We can't make function in live theater what's on the movie screen. So we have to think of what I call simple, unique and clever ways to tell the story and make it fun and unexpected."

So the squirrels became squirrel puppets painted pink and wielding blue and yellow hammers that squeak when they hit their target, and the pink candy boat underwent a modern-dance interpretation.

"We went with sort of a Martha Graham core where the actors' movement is making the boat move, and they stay stationary," Dunn says, referring to the modern-dance master. "We brought in two pieces of metal steel that are bent to the shape of the boat, and then Eric helped us make pink fabric candy sides so that the fabric moves with the boat.

"They really are selling it facially and movement-wise. It's finding clever ways to do it without bringing a giant boat on stage."

That was another key to the production: relying on the cast's talents.

The directors say that really manifested itself in the Oompa-Loompas, who, unlike Burton's vision, are individuals, taking advantage of the acting and athletic chops of the performers.

Staging other works by Dahl — James and the Giant Peach and The BFG — gave Kisling confidence that the Children's Theatre was ready to tackle Wonka's story.

"You have to attack those production issues first," Kisling says. "So you say, 'We have 501 seagulls on stage at once (in a scene from James and the Giant Peach). How do we handle that?' I sit down and say, 'What are those production challenges?' Because we're going to attack those first, and they will impact everything else.

"The second step is, 'How do I do it differently?'"

It might be the coolest job in the world, but nobody said it was easy.