You don't see much of the title character in the opening act of Willy Wonka, Lexington Children's Theatre's annual summer family musical.
Steve Wrightson makes a subdued but enticing entrance in the title role during the opening number, Pure Imagination, before largely receding into the shadows while the audience is introduced to young, poor, good-hearted Charlie Bucket and his endearing family.
Wrightson and his son Joseph comprise one of 11 families to participate in this annual community-building theater experience. With multiple families working on both sides of the production under the direction of LCT associate artistic director Jeremy Kisling and education associate Amie Dunn, it's no surprise that the result is a colossal, colorful, chocolate-laden joy ride into the imagination.
The cast is comprised almost entirely of local, amateur actors, rather than the professional cast of most LCT main-stage shows. Give or take the occasional flat note or lines that smack of over-delivery, and the show's amateur influence barely registers.
Dunn's choreography works in tandem with Tony Hardin's wildly imaginative chocolate factory set design. The choreography and blocking in Golden Age of Chocolate, a number early in Act I, is a terrific example of how to incorporate visual layers of movement to robust effect.
Song, movement and story converge in the play's second act, during the darkly atmospheric boat ride in There's No Knowing. Carolyn Voss' spectacularly dramatic lighting design accompanies the five-piece orchestra with spooky elegance. Add the actors' synchronous timing and some creative use of props, and you've got one of the most visually and thematically striking moments of the show.
Speaking of actors, as we are welcomed to the chocolate factory, we finally get a taste of just what kind of Wonka Wrightson is. At first, I thought he was a bit too calm and laconic. Then I realized, that's part of his shtick. By the time he had mischievously discarded all of the golden-ticket holders who won a tour of his factory, the audience was eating up Wrightson's unique take on the character.
Speaking of the golden-ticket winners, let's hope the actors' roles are a big stretch from their real-life personalities, because they are world-class brats. Hamming it up for an audience, they owned some of the show's most audacious comedic moments — as when gum-snapping Violet Beauregard (played with cheeky verve by Kristina Leggas) turns into a giant blueberry, or when snotty, rich wannabe princess Veruca Salt (played with uppity sass by Cassady Gorrell) gets a sound verbal trouncing from Wonka himself. Will Swisher is delightfully hateable as Mike Teavee, a California teenager who is too addicted to all things electronic to give any other human the time of day. And Cameron Taylor seriously brought the funny as Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous German boy for whom eating is a full-time job.
Played with infectious enthusiasm by Dee White, Charlie isn't perfect — he does give in to temptation. But he also makes amends for that, an important lesson that doesn't get lost in the show's celebratory ending.
A richly textured experience, Willy Wonka is a chocolate ride worth taking.