By NICK ROGERS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
Andrew Frace isn't thinking of a gooey-sugar combination of Nerds, Donutz, Laffy Taffy and Runts sprinkled with Pixy Stix dust when he mentions a "Willy Wonka casserole."
The stage actor means the blend of spice and subtlety - a pinch of Gene Wilder and a dash of Johnny Depp with Frace's own formula - in his interpretation of the kooky candy man.
"Those are definitely two very big shoes to fill," Frace says of Wilder and Depp's onscreen performances as Willy Wonka in two popular films. "Willy Wonka is a very in-depth character. For the camera, subtlety is a big thing. But onstage, Willy Wonka is kind of larger than life," he says. "It's a tricky tightrope to walk in terms of conveying subtleties to the children in the audience while playing to the back of the room."
The East Coast actor is in the second month of a nine-month nationwide tour of "Willy Wonka." Created and sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington , D.C. , this production originated there in November 2004 before hitting the road in September. Like most of the cast - the actress playing Veruca Salt was an understudy in the original - Frace is new to the show.
Its script is taken largely from Roald Dahl's classic book, with a sprinkling of songs from the 1971 film (e.g., "Pure Imagination" the Oompa-Loompa songs) and original music. Plus, it's not an Everlasting Gobstopper - Frace says the show comes in at right around an hour. "All the important stuff is in there, and it's a real high-energy show,"Frace says. "We get the kids' attention, hold it for a solid hour and leave them with the energy of the live stage."
Frace says the stage presents a whole different beast to wrangle when telling Wonka's story. Unable to rely on computer-generated effects and thousand-dollar backdrops, the small cast relies on puppetry and low-budget, but innovative, special effects.
The story's grandparents and parents are puppets, as are the bodies and heads of the Oompa-Loompas, who dispense musical advice. The Oompa-Loompas' legs, however, are the real thing. "The actors sit on stools with wheels on the bottom with the body in front of them," Frace says. "They manipulate the arms and head and move their own feet. The Oompa-Loompas are usually one of the things the kids really remember. They always get a big hand.
"When you see the kids having a great time, it makes our job very, very easy. It's hard getting up early in the morning sometimes and put on that costume. But once you see the kids' faces light up, it's all worth it."
Nick Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Kate Marshall
SPECIAL TO THE COURIER NEWS
A small cast of multi-tasking actors will on Thursday, Oct. 27, bring the first stage production of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake .
The Thursday production of Willy Wonka will be a student show and two performances for the general public will run on Saturday, Oct. 29.
Kim Peter Kovac, the director of youth and family programs at the Washington D.C.-based Kennedy Center— which produced the show— said it is the first stage version of Dahl's famous novel.
The hour-long production "is an adaptation of the story," said Andrew Frace, the actor who plays Willy Wonka. "Mainly, they pulled from the book," Frace said, rather than the movie versions of the tale.
In the story, Charlie Bucket, a boy who comes from a poverty-stricken family, finds a Golden Ticket that entitles him to a tour of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory along with four other children. During the tour, the other children prove themselves unworthy, but Charlie's honesty and innocence earn him the honor of carrying on Wonka's legacy.
Kovac said striking a balance between morality and pure fun was a challenge for the actors and directors of the show. "We didn't want to beat anybody over the head with a moral message," he said, but they didn't want to deny that element of the story.
There were also logistical challenges in putting dozens of characters onstage with only seven actors.
The production staff solved that problem by allowing the actors to share the story's many roles with puppets. The Oompa Loompas, for example, are portrayed by actors on rolling stools. The Oompa Loompas' bodies and heads are puppets and the actors' legs become the characters' legs.
Puppets aren't meant to create a complete illusion. "You see the actors behind them; that's sort of part of it," Kovac said. Audience members must use their imaginations in order to get wrapped up in the story.
Nonetheless, Frace said, plenty of props— like a bubble machine to create the Fizzy Lifting Room— and lighting techniques will add to the fantasy
The production has been on the road for a little more than a month and will tour for about nine months, focusing in particular on reaching out to students.
"It's aimed at giving a lot of kids who wouldn't normally be able to see live theater a chance to," Frace said.
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