A Scary-Funny Teachable Moment
First Stage’s skillful production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proved a valuable tool in reinforcing the importance of proper conduct. By creating an extreme situation where true colors show and nice guys finish last in the best possible way, the story helps illustrate why it pays to be the good kid. Intriguingly multi-functional set pieces maximized the space onstage, and coupled with beautiful performances by deft actors of all ages, the show is definitely a must see for the grade-school family.
Like the fairy tale classics, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory playfully contrasts right and wrong in a way children can understand. I’d forgotten the impact Dahl’s whimsical stories had on me as a child until I found myself sitting in the lobby comforting my frightened son. As Veruca inched her way toward the nut-sorting squirrels, he became frightened, shooting up out of his seat and into the aisle. “Can we go now?” he pleaded, and held onto me for dear life.
It isn’t that the play is scary –it’s rather comical, actually—but Samadhi is the kind of boy who worries about everyone. Seeing naughty kids sucked into pipes, pushed into garbage chutes, and shrunk by gamma rays made him worry about the physical safety of the actors. I assured him that no children, squirrels, or Oompa Loompas were harmed in the making of the show.
More Gene Wilder than Johnny Depp, Wonka (played by charming Bo Johnson) was a lively trickster that led the audience through the seven deadly sins redux. Samadhi and I joined a crowded house to see just how Milwaukee’s favorite children’s theater would handle such a wildly popular story.
Watching the fates of four young antagonists, Samadhi came to a very important conclusion: though it hadn’t previously dawned on him, he learned that poor decisions do indeed come with negative consequences. In this case, they were a bit extreme for illustrative purposes, but the colorful cast and multi-use set created the perfect stage for a conversation on reinforcing positive behaviors.
We watched most of the cause-and-effect scenes from the lobby, Madhi and I talked about the characters. He especially loathed Veruca’s behavior, which he referred to as “pretty sassy.” Madison Penzkover’s performance was one of the best I’ve seen from the youth actors at the theater, but all of the children held their own through the nuanced accents of each role.
I used the moment to remind him of one of his more recent temper tantrums. We talked about making the right decisions, even when it seems like things aren’t going our way. The timing of the lesson couldn’t have come at a better moment. Money’s tight these days, so the play gave me a chance to explained to him the reality of our situation in a way that he understood—I compared our lives to that of Charlie and the rest of the Bucket family. While I may not be able to give him everything he wants, I can offer him what that he needs: unconditional love and support to be the wonderful little guy he is.
After our talk, we returned to the theater in time for the glass elevator scene. Madhi loves this part, because in his mind, he thinks Charlie’s behavior earned him a ride home and a chocolate factory of his own—much better than being turned into a blueberry.
For the record, the talk-back portion of the show put his worried mind to rest when all of the characters returned to the stage looking perfectly ordinary. After the show, we took a lesson from Charlie and Grandpa Joe, consciously deciding to be mindful of the feelings of those around us. Together, we went out into the cold world with warm hearts and smiling faces.