GLEN RIDGE, NJ — A staging of “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” by the Gas Lamp Junior Players, will begin a four-performance run tomorrow night at Ridgewood Avenue School.
The musical is based on Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” made popular by the 1971 movie, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. The Gas Lamp offering is under the direction of Heather Ballantyne and Erin Dilly. About 100 third- to seventh-graders, from Glen Ridge, Bloomfield and nearby communities, have been cast.
In a recent interview, Ballantyne said “Willy Wonka” was chosen because it would make a great pre-Thanksgiving show.
“It was one of my favorites,” she said. “We talked about ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and I’ve been trying to get the rights for ‘Matilda.’ But ‘Matilda’ is dark and in “Singin’ in the Rain,” the kids would be playing adults. We wanted kids playing kids and this show has so many good characters.”
The production got under way in September with the cast divided into junior and senior companies, third- and fourth-graders comprising the junior company. The Oompa Loompas — the factory workers in a chocolate factory — will be portrayed by senior company members who have been double-cast. The junior company members will play Candy Kids and Squirrels.
“Willy Wonka” tells the story of Charlie Bucket, a boy who, by chance, wins a chocolate factory tour and the promise of a lifetime supply of chocolate should he not fall prey to temptation. The role of Charlie is double-cast in the Gas Lamp production, but Willy Wonka is not.
In addition to Ballantyne and Dilly, rehearsals are overseen by musical director Jess Glover and choreographer Jonathan Dulevson.
“In rehearsals,” Ballantyne said, “everyone is responsible for a group for a certain time and we rotate. The directors do the staging. We had to kind of conquer and divide.”
Putting on a show is hard work, but with children, there has to be some fun, too, Ballantyne acknowledged.
“For the little ones, we start as a group and freeze dance and do theater games,” she said. “That’s where they have fun together. Even when you start rehearsals, you have to stay focused. It’s tough after a long day at school. We do it for everyone — 100 kids on the stage. It’s great to have Ridgewood Avenue School, it’s a big stage.”
With “Willy Wonka” having been adapted several time, Ballantyne said the Gas Player presentation is more in line with the 1971 movie.
“What Erin and I have tried to do is keep it as close to the Gene Wilder movie,” she said. “There were some things in the script that were maybe too obvious and we tried to be creative.”
One example was the identity of Willy Wonka. “We wanted to keep him a mystery until a critical moment,” she said.
But none of the words in the script were changed.
“This is such an ensemble piece,” Ballantyne said. “The senior company playing most of the roles are extremely talented.”
“Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” is perfect family-fare she said. The kids are having a great time and it is anticipated that the audience will, too. The show is 75 minutes long, with an intermission, and Wonka Bars for sale.
Ballantyne said it was rare to have a children’s show double-cast, but for this production it was necessary because four performances were scheduled.
“And because there is so much enthusiasm for the junior productions,” she added.
The children are also learning that when performing in a large ensemble they have the opportunity to be creative on their own.
“It’s just as hard in the ensemble,” Ballantyne said. “You’re working together to create and tell a story and you get to create your own character and backstory.”
And children playing leads in a show sometimes started out in the ensemble of another show and got noticed. Or sometimes, if the director decides an additional bit of work is necessary, but not scripted, a child may be plucked from the ensemble.
Ballantyne and Dilly, who is a Tony-nominated actor, run a summer children’s theater camp, in Montclair. Both are mothers with two children in the show.
“It can be tricky when it comes to casting and you’re a mom,” Ballantyne laughed. “One thing I love about Gas Lamp is to have families try out for a show.”
She hopes that families come away from “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” feeling good.
“There’s a song in the show, ‘Think Positive,’” she said. “It’s a good song for these times.”
Ridgewood Avenue School on Friday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 17, at 1 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 18, at 1 p.m. An admission fee is charged.