Sweet: Berkeley Playhouse's 'Wonka'

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Willy Wonka (Vernon Bush) hands over the (delicious) goods to Charlie (Dakota Dry).
Photo by Larry Abel

Sometimes when the going gets rough, it's time for a pinch of sweet nostalgia. Or, in this case, a metric ton of sweet nostalgia: through Aug. 19, the Berkeley Playhouse presents Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a hilarious, heartwarming, and lively take on Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As the title suggests, Willy Wonka (music and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse; adapted for stage by Leslie Bricusse and Tim McDonald) stays true to the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder (begone, Burton), with its familiar warnings about spoiled children and themes emphasizing the importance of family over materialistic obsessions. Plus, plenty of dark humor — some of which may go above younger viewers' heads, but is not wasted on older fans of this twisted tale.

That said, the children in the audience seemed delighted by the production — Nina Ball's set is quite impressive and not compromised due to limitations of stage compared to film, and the ensemble of teenage performers, fantastic dancers all, kept each scene engaging. The professional actors — particularly Vernon Bush as Willy Wonka — have great comic timing, with just enough sentiment to keep the story balanced between funny and touching.

Although some songs such as "Think Positive" are a bit cheesy, this production, directed by Elizabeth McKoy, also included downright funky numbers. The classic "The Candy Man Can" got everyone rocking in their seats. Bush's performance retains the mysterious aura of the original character, while adding a more hip element to the fatherly yet obviously mad version Wilder portrayed in the film.

Bush — a featured vocalist at Glide Memorial Church; he also starred in Whitney Houston's first-ever music video! — is a veteran performer, but he hasn't done musical theater for over a decade. Though he did seem a bit rusty on line delivery, he more than made up for it in his superb songs and how light he was on his feet.

His Wonka tops off an enthusiastic cast, all of whom did an outstanding job bringing this uplifting story of underdogs (and candy ... flowing chocolate rivers ahoy!) to life. Totally worth the price of a "golden ticket" ($17-$35 in this case) for you and a favorite young 'un.

Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Thu/16 and Sat/18, 7pm (also Sat/18, 2pm); Sun/19, noon and 5pm, $17-$35
Julia Morgan Theatre
2640 College, Berk
www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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