Rockford’s Grace Schulte turning ‘Pure Imagination’ into pure reality

Rockford’s Grace Schulte, pictured in the foreground, captures the starry hopefulness of Charlie with the support of her onstage grandparents. (Photo by Alaina Rooker)

4 Community Theatre goes full Wonka July 21

By Alaina Rooker

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One challenge facing 4 Community Theatre’s production of “Willy Wonka?” It’s foothold in popular culture.

The story has been realized in many different mediums, and each iteration offered up something new that made it completely its own. First, of course, is Roald Dahl’s classic novel, one piece of an ever-popular canon of literature that introduced us to the world of Wonka. The second is the nostalgic 1971 film adaptation that failed to launch a chocolate bar but featured one of Gene Wilder’s greatest onscreen performances. Last is Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005), a much zanier and darker version of Wonka (played by Johnny Depp) that introduced the story to a new generation.

“I think everyone is familiar with the story,” says Director Thomas Sullivan. “You will definitely not see the same show you’ve seen before.”

4 Community Theatre’s summer production does make a few departures of its own. A new character is introduced.

“You’ve got this factory full of Oompa Loompas but no foreman,” said Sullivan. “So we created a head Oompa Loompa.” Sullivan says the character was inspired by “Fantasy Island,” a 1977 television show whose central character consulted to a little-person name Tattoo.

The Willy Wonka character itself faces a new, gender-bending dynamic. Virginia Haggart will not just be a female playing a male Wonka, but playing a female Wonka. After deciding she was the best fit for the role, 4CT realized the reclusive character could easily reveal herself as a woman within the play itself.

The new dynamic to the character also frees the role from becoming cliché. “It’s a classically male role, and to forget Gene Wilder in it is really difficult,” said Sullivan on the decision.

The role of Charlie also switches up gender expectations. Grace Schulte, a student of Rockford, was chosen to take on the role. “Grace brings the honest, sincere disposition needed for the role of Charlie,” said Sullivan. “While the other children arrive at the factory driven by greed and a sense of entitlement, Charlie is excited to just be part of the adventure. As the story unfolds, Charlie’s honesty is put to the test, however.”

The cast of 4CT’s Willy Wonka rehearses one of the major numbers in the show. (Photo by Alaina Rooker)

Other components remain the same. The show will remain friendly to all ages, with some subtle humor for adults and plenty of physical humor for children. The production and set design is ambitious, but in line with the Wonka canon.

“We’re working with a lot of moving parts,” said set producer Jack Neveaux who, along with Cindy Haugen, have been tasked with bringing the chocolate factory and its inhabitants to life. Costumes are by Claudia Kelly and Mary Senneka, lights and projections by Andrew Lunceford, sound and design by Peter Skurdalsvold, props by Grace and Joe Happe, choreography by Christy Branham, and vocal and music direction by Dan Oie and Andy Deluca.

Director Sullivan’s only lament: “We couldn’t find any octogenarians to play Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina.”

A trailer for the show can be found here.

The show opens this Friday, July 21 at 7 p.m. in the Orono High School Auditorium, 795 Old Crystal Bay Road, Long Lake. Recommended for ages six and up. Advance tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, and $9 for students and can be purchased at www.4communitytheatre.org. At the door tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $11 for students. Additional dates: July 22, 28, 29 at 7 p.m., and special performances translated in American Sign Language July 23 and 30 at 1 p.m.

For more information, call 952-449-8301 or visit the 4 Community Theatre website.

Willy Wonka is produced in part through the support of a Metropolitan Regional Arts Commission grant and administratively supported by Orono Community Education.