By Anna Merrill
Imagination can create the most whimsical of fantasies, or it can take you to the darkest of places. Roald Dahl was known for his talent to effectively do both with the same story, creating children’s stories that appeared overly playful, but contained an innate darkness. Riverside High School paid tribute to Mr. Dahl last weekend with their clever rendition of “Willy Wonka.”
“Willy Wonka” is based off of Dahl’s 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, which was adapted into a movie starring Gene Wilder in 1971, and then again in 2005 starring Johnny Depp. “Willy Wonka” is the psychedelic story of the eponymous candy maker who is a revered genius, but who is mysterious and odd to the outside world. Wonka invites five lucky contest winners to tour his factory, four of whom are awful children. Although the world inside is colorful and sweet, there is a madness behind Wonka’s methods. Each of the naughty children falls prey to a fate specifically designed by Wonka to tempt them. Like all of Roald Dahl’s work, Willy Wonka is bitingly smart, wildly imagina–tive, and misleadingly dark–underneath the colorful whimsy lies a foreboding undercurrent.
Noah Hamadé, who played Mr. Wonka himself, portrayed these aspects spectacularly. He was charmingly funny, yet in his subtler moments, menacingly unhinged. Hamadé was hilarious and charming, but he used subtle facial and physical tics that betrayed the deranged darkness underneath that red velvet coat. Hamadé had a high, expressive singing voice that suited the character, and his sarcastic responses to the abhorrent children elicited some explosive laughs from the audience.
Hamadé’s performance was perfectly accentuated by the supporting cast. Jackson Anderson (Charlie) gave us a hero to root for, capturing the youth and innocent morality of his character with skill and stamina. Jack Gutierrez (Augustus) was an audience favorite with his confident presence and hilariously strong German accent. Megan Hoehn (Veruca) stood out with one of the strongest singing voices in the cast, and Evan Gardner (Grandpa Joe) punctuated the show with well-timed moments of physical comedy.
The actors’ performances were strengthened by the technical elements of the show. With the different fantastical locations inside of Wonka’s factory, the set designers had a challenge, but they created a set that was exciting without being too busy. It had the right balance of bright primary colors and grounding neutral colors, which visualized the conflict between whimsy and darkness.
The high-energy orchestra underscored the show with musical precision and dynamic. The choreography, by Kara Palumbo, suited the music and story perfectly. The choreography for the Oompa Loompas- who were a strong ensemble -was the perfect combination of whimsical and creepy. Overall, the choreography was dynamic and entertaining without exceeding the strengths of the dancers.
There were some moments in the show that felt tonally off—some acting choices didn’t quite mesh with the feel and flow of the story. Some actors’ enthusiasm exceeded the abilities of the sound system, which cut out when actors hit a particularly high or loud note. Even with these minimal errors, the show was high-energy and entertaining.
Riverside High School did Mr. Dahl proud last weekend, capturing the simultaneous whimsy and pathos for which Dahl is so renowned. The actors’ thoughtful and entertaining performances, paired with the ingenuity of the creative team, turned a well-loved story into a unique performance. Indeed, Roald Dahl would be proud to know that such creative students are still using his stories to bring alive the thrilling and mysteriously infinite depths of the imagination.
[Anna Merrill is a member of Teens and Theatre Company. This review of the May 6 performance at Riverside High School is part of a series published in a partnership between Loudoun Now and The Cappies, a writing and awards program that trains high school theatre and journalism students to be expert writers, critical thinkers, and leaders.]