In a world of imagination, the Kenai Performers are bringing Willy Wonka to reality.
The Kenai production company is showcasing “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” using the 50th anniversary musical rendition of the book with eight showings over two weekends.
Kenai Performers “Willy Wonka” co-directors Terri Burdick and Donna Shirnberg collaborated with music director Audra Faris on the production, receiving help with musical mind Kent Peterson. Peterson will conduct the orchestra during the play, using original music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.
Shirnberg said that as Kenai Performers’ productions have risen in talent and popularity, the company felt compelled to up its game with a retelling and retooling of the classic children’s novel.
“When we were looking at what next comes next, we knew it had to top ‘Shrek’,” Shirnberg said about the previous production. “It had to be something to appeal to children in the cast.”
Shirnberg said the play gives a special nod to actor Gene Wilder, the original face of Willy Wonka in the 1971 film, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
“It’s true to Gene Wilder,” Shirnberg said. “It’s a tribute to him. He’s Willy, and he’ll always be Willy.”
Shirnberg said the crew wished to bridge the gap between the 1971 film and current incarnations of the character, which in its most recent revival was brought to life by Johnny Depp in the 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
The leading role of Charlie Bucket is portrayed by 13-year-old Clare Henry, an eighth-grader at Cook Inlet Academy. Henry said the soft-spoken and honest character is her first as a leading role, but one that she has found a passion for. Henry said her audition went well because her personality matches that of Charlie.
“I wasn’t so quiet,” she explained. “It was easy and it was hard in some ways.”
Co-director Rebecca Gilman said choosing Henry for the role required a slight character reversal, since the book and movie adaptations all feature the main protagonist as a boy.
However, much like the use of actresses for the male character of Peter Pan, Gilman opted to utilize an actress to play a boy since the portrayal was so strong.
“Clare was so easy to latch onto as compared to the others,” Gilman said. “Nothing about the play rules that it has to be a boy.”
Shirnberg also credited the hard work from the Kenai Central High School production crew, which installed new LED lights and projections on the back screen, which will project four separate background scenes.
Overall, Shirnberg said the large cast pulls together to portray over a dozen characters — not including the 24 Oompa-Loompa characters.
“The cast makes it phenomenal,” Shirnberg said. “The cast is what makes it special.”
For the titular role of Willy Wonka, Shirnberg said the production was looking for someone who could project the majesty and fantasy of such an eccentric character.
That’s where the Kenai Performers enlisted Soldotna actor Spencer McAuliffe, who plays Wonka. McAuliffe, 30, who majored in vocal performance at George Fox University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been performing for nearly 20 years and has around two dozen shows under his belt.
McAuliffe said playing the Wonka role has challenged him to bring out his most vibrant skills that will truly bring the character to life while adding his own flair.
“It’s a blast,” McAuliffe said. “You want to give them the expectation of who Willy is, but also make it who you are. It’s definitely not typical Willy Wonka. It’s much more demanding vocally.”
McAuliffe’s acting experience is mirrored by fellow Wonka star Ian McEwen, or Mr. Salt, the enterprising father of Veruca Salt in the production.
McEwen is in his ninth year with the Kenai Performers and has at least a decade total of experience. McEwen said his role as Mr. Salt has allowed him to entirely let loose for a rambunctious character.
“I don’t have to worry about going over the top,” McEwen said. “Mr. Salt’s a caricature.
“It’s like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Cal Worthington.”
McEwen said working with the younger cast like Henry is particularly gratifying as the youth movement has injected energy and enthusiasm into the show.
“Working with kids can be challenging, but not in this case,” he said. “They’re all very sweet, hardworking, but they’re not like their characters, who are often rude and bratty.”
“Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” will be performed at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21-23 at 7 p.m., with a Sunday, Feb. 24 matinee at 2 p.m., and on Thursday, Feb. 28 and Friday and Saturday, March 1, 2, at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, March 3. General admission is $26. Children, students, seniors and military are $21. Thursdays admission is $16.