Notes on Willy Wonka Jr. (Perry Junior High, New Hartford, NY)

Willy Wonka Jr.

Willy Wonka Jr.

I don’t review shows I’ve worked rehearsals for – my behind-the-scenes experiences invariably color my interpretation, and I think a critic should write from the audience. Still, there has been some interest in my reaction to Willy Wonka Jr., because I’ve written about New Hartford shows in the past.

I love the theater our community built. It is a state-of-the-art wonder, full of possibility. In the past I’ve shouted that students should have more opportunities to work backstage on productions, as well as appear in front of the curtain. (Yesterday, I jotted a bit on that topic.)

I was asked by Rusty Ritzel to help with lighting. (When I tagged Rusty in a post on Facebook, a friend asked if that was the name of the play or what I was drinking.) I met Rusty when I worked on Drowsy Chaperone this fall, although we knew each other by reputation. I was impressed by his stage presence, even more when I watched him run a rehearsal. Rusty is an arts educator by training and temperament – he drives toward an artistic vision in collaboration with performers and technicians, always encouraging, always trying to improve. I recognized a kindred spirit.

I told Rusty my goal was for the students to run their own show, and he agreed. We didn’t have enough time to let them design the lighting, but they were able to run rehearsals during tech (a.k.a. hell) week. Maya Rahn was in charge of the computer lighting board. Despite never having seen one before, she caught on quickly. Sydney Gape and Oscar Klempay ran the followspots. Again, neither had performed that job before, and they learned from the ground up. Luckily I had Susan, a 20-year followspot veteran, to provide training. Sydney and Oscar did a great job on a demanding show – they were on more often than not, with little time to rest between cues. Alivia DeLuke learned the sound board under Joe Fanelli’s tutelage. Backstage: Sarah Bord, Cassidy Fenton, Mohamed Aly, Nathan Benjamin, Cassidy Corbin, Nathaniel Moretz, Sarah Allam, Laurel Beattie, Alvi Das, Matthew Kirkham, Riley Cady, Rachel Daly, Hayley Oliver, Ari Sprague, Mary Magdalene Tehan, Brendan Whitman, Zoe Brown, Catherine Rayhill, Sarah Benson, and Madelyne Morris comprised the student crew. Their concerted trick was to get the actors onstage at the right time in the right costumes and makeup, props and scenery moved in the dark, everything as quickly and silently as possible. Through it all, I mostly stood by with the other adults, advising (which was required less and less frequently, as each mastered their department.)

Trevor Jones choreographed. I’ve worked on shows with Trevor before, thankful I didn’t have to learn his moves. For Willy Wonka, that task fell to the Oompa Loompas. It seemed to me there was a constant line of Loompas in the back, out of the main action. Trevor explained there were too many dancers to fit on the stage at once, and he alternated who was in the main group so everyone had a chance. Again, this is the kind of educational focus I was looking for.

The company was wide and well cast. The musical centers on Willy Wonka, an adjustment for me, most familiar with Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In addition to Wonka there was Charlie, along with 16 other named characters, plus assorted “candy man kids” (does that sound creepy?) and squirrels. An anecdote: “Sarah, how did rehearsal go today?” “Fine, except I had to comfort a crying squirrel.”

The company got better with every run. I watched five rehearsals and two out of three performances. The improvement from first to last was at least 100%, and never went backward. I found myself looking forward to certain line deliveries, particular songs, sharply executed cues. I watched Rusty encourage the cast via his reactions – he’d double over in laughter and convey affirmation. Very few notes. He treated the cast and crew with respect and didn’t condescend. He expected excellence and they worked to live up to the expectation.

I’ve written before that everyone wins in performing arts (unlike sports, which focus on defeating an opponent.) I’m proud to have been part of this winning production.