Wonka Onstage – ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ opens in Ojai

Willy Wonka (Cecil Sutton) announces a world-wide contest for a lifetime supply of chocolate. Dean Zatkowsky Photo
Willy Wonka (Cecil Sutton) announces a world-wide contest for a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Dean Zatkowsky Photo

Mention “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and three things spring to most people’s minds: the cherished book by Roald Dahl and the two movies that altered how different generations have imagined the goings-on inside the factory. But who knows of the play?

This entirely different thing — adapted by elementary school teacher Richard George and later given the thumbs up by Dahl — is a blank slate for designers, with no descriptions of characters or sets. It’s a chance for a production to go mad, to act like, shall we say, kids in a candy store. That’s exactly what goes down tonight in Ojai when Gai Jones and Ojai ACT unveil their version.

“He stays 90-percent faithful to the book, not the movie,” says Jones of George. “When people come, they’ll be more inclined to understand what Dahl was doing with his classical text.”

Dahl’s original book is “more of a lesson” for children, Jones says, and deals with the four horrible children at the end in a way different from the movie. However, there will be squirrels, Oompa-Loompas and chutes for the children to disappear down. There will be a boat to sail down a chocolate river and a glass elevator. Audiences will be asked to use their imagination, as well, Jones adds.

Jones is no stranger to directing a large cast of children, with 40 years teaching at the high school level. And for many of the child roles, she has chosen two actors for each part, performing on alternate nights. Both Charlies and both Violets are very different. Other children change roles depending on the evening, and two sisters play newsreaders who lead the audience through the story.

Most of the children had read the book before, Jones says, and they love the Oompa-Loompa song from the original film. In order to avoid disappointing the actors — there is no music in the script — Jones contacted the music director at Nordhoff High School and commissioned original music from the students.

For Willy Wonka, Jones cast Cecil Sutton, after he came in and blew them all away in audition.

“He juggled, he really related to the kids well,” she says. “It’s really magical to watch him.”

Wonka is neither a Wilder wannabe nor a Depp lookalike. In fact, the script offers no description.

“I don’t think Willy is really weird in any way,” she says. “The way we’re doing it and the way the script is written, it has given us more latitude to be more imaginative than a typical person.”

Rod Matzat, graphic designer and father to one of the actors, has designed the sets, including the Oompa-Loompa-powered boat that floats down the chocolate river. Matzat was helped by the many other parents involved in the production.

Jones says she loves the first-time actors best of all, no matter what the age.

“It’s the empowerment that they find,” she says, “It’s the creativity they discover is already there within. All I do is help them utilize it and channel it so the audience can understand and believe their journey. That smile that comes on their face once they realize they’ve perfected something, that the audience gets it … I think that’s what keeps me going.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays; through May 23
Where: Ojai Center for the Arts, 113 S. Montgomery St., in Ojai
Cost: $15 general, $12 seniors, students and ACT members, $5 kids under 12
Information: (805) 640-8797 or OjaiACT.org

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