Paramount Theatre’s production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sweet treat for the holiday season!

Photo by Liz Lauren

Warning: This review contains spoilers! If you have gotten through life to this point without reading the literary classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl or seeing either the 2005 movie by the same name starring Johnny Depp or the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring the Willy Wonka G.O.A.T. Gene Wilder, do not read any further. Instead, immediately buy your golden ticket to see the Paramount Theatre’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Otherwise, stop reading and keep scrolling. Nope. Strike that! Reverse it!

When the curtain opens on Trent Stork’s masterfully directed production, we are greeted by Willy Wonka’s signature W curling at the back of the stage (and, like everything in this show, Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s sets amaze us with how they fill the immense space the Paramount stage offers). Willy Wonka appears and Stephen Schellhardt instantly establishes his Wonka as perfectly imaginative, congenial, and creepy all at the same time. Schellhardt’s bio indicates he is a Jeff award-winning actor and I could instantly see why as, despite Wonka’s eccentricities and uncaring attitude towards Charlie, his magnetism drew me in. While it is hard to like Willy Wonka, it is hard not to as well. 

The first act is set in a dreary place of a “Great Town” in a “Grand Time” and we meet young Charlie Bucket. On Friday night, we saw the immensely talented Meena Sood (other nights you may see Charlie Long who appeared for the curtain call and looked equally as charming as Ms. Sood). Sood’s Charlie, as well as her family (especially Grandpa Joe played by Gene Weyagnadt, and Mrs. Bucket played by Jaye Ladymore) are surprisingly optimistic despite the dire situation they live in, scraping to buy one moldy cabbage for dinner for 6. The Bucket’s spectacularly designed tiny two-story home provides a lot of laughs as Grandpa Joe is joined in bed on the second floor by Grandma Josephine (Lydia Burke), Grandpa George (Jared David Michael Grant), and Grandma Georgina (Nellie Shuford). From the start, when Charlie enters the only bright spot in the town, the candy store that has mysteriously appeared and is run by a man who looks surprisingly like Willy Wonka, we are all in anticipation of the moment when Charlie will find the golden ticket that will deservingly whisk the imaginative young girl out of her dreary existence.  We all know it’s coming, and after sitting through 4 other terrible children winning their prize through entertainingly funny and quirky songs (expertly choreographed by Kasey Alfonso) as well as a beautiful ballad sung by Ladymore, the time arrives and…

IT IS MAGICAL! Charlie opens her chocolate wrapper and her face is bathed in golden light on the dark stage and everything seems right with the world! And that is only Act I!

In dazzling stark contrast to Act I, Kmiec’s Act II sets and Greg Hofmann’s lights are bright and glorious and Willy Wonka’s factory is as scrumpdiddlyumptious as we have imagined. Charlie and the affable Grandpa Joe traverse through all of the perils of the factory with the 4 other winners (Devon Hayakawa as Veruca Salt, David Blakeman as Augustus Gloop, Tiffany T. Taylor as Violet Beauregarde and August Forman as Mike Teevee—all adults but believable as children) and their parents, each slowly losing the contest in terribly appropriate, very humorous ways. And of course, the lovable yet bizarre oompa loompas dance, hop, and bop around to clean up the mess. As each contestant falls away and Charlie is the last child standing, the show ends in yet another dazzling surprise.

As Paramount productions always do, I was blown away by every aspect of this show. From the lights to the sets, the costumes, the choreography, and, most importantly, the acting, this show is as good as any I’ve seen in the Chicago area. The only important note, that my son and I discovered during some research at intermission, is that this version, which had a very contemporary feel (think portable video games, Instagram, and likes), is based more closely on the book than the classic Wilder movie- so some of the plot points and many of the songs are different from other versions audience members may be familiar with (including the musical Willy Wonka). However, that did not detract from my marvel at this production. 

On the long ride home, my son and I could not stop talking about the fantastical show we had just seen. Willy Wonka, whether in a book, on film, or shining in front of your eyes on stage is always a treat and this is a production you don’t want to miss!

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now playing at the Paramount Theater, 23 E Galena Blvd, Aurora, until January 14th. Performance times vary; check the website at Paramount Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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