Tuesday, January 21, 2020
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Rockville’s strong Willy Wonka: children, good & bad

Last night I saw a #RockvilleStrong poster hanging on the wall near one of the entrances to Rockville High School in the seat of Montgomery County, Maryland. I was there to see about a hundred students put on the musical theater production Willy Wonka, based on Roald Dahl’s book, but the school has been in the news since March 16 for an alleged rape that occurred in one of the bathrooms. Some details are still making their way into the light about the incident.

Two undocumented immigrant students have been charged as adults with first-degree rape and first-degree sexual offense in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old freshman at the high school. The case has received extensive coverage from local news media and has even drawn commentary from top players in the Trump administration, following what county leaders have said would be continued defiance of President Donald Trump’s call not to protect or harbor undocumented immigrants.

Maryland is also considering statewide legislation that would make it a “sanctuary state,” and on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “I would plead with the people of Maryland to understand that this makes the state of Maryland more at risk for violence and crime. It is not good policy.”

The musical’s director, Dana Tobiassen, who is directing her last show, at least for a while, might have something to say about that: “There is no place to go to compare with your imagination,” she wrote in the program booklet, quoting Willy Wonka in the musical. Willy Wonka is the creator of wonderful candies and a huge company that rescues Oompa Loompas who were in terrible danger in their native Loompaland.

Ms Tobiassen will have twin boys this summer, the first kids for her and her husband, Daniel, who met her in the theater and served as the technical director for tonight’s show. The production runs through Saturday at the high school, and it’s the only production of this musical I know about this spring in Maryland.

“This show is bittersweet,” she writes, referring to her departure from the theater scene to take care of her own kids, a hiatus she hopes will be temporary.

The show opens without an overture but with Willy Wonka (Dylan Hawkins) singing the words Ms Tobiassen quoted as he walks to the stage from the back of the house. His smooth and surefooted baritone captivates the attention of the audience just a few seconds after the curtain. The musical, however, is written in such a way that Willy Wonka also narrates part of it, referring to himself in the third person on at least one occasion, even though we all can see it’s him, given his sparkly green and purple suit and top hat (costumes by Madison Meserole, Mary Nylund, Sidney Petersen, Meg Safford, and Ms Tobiassen).

The character of Charlie, an unassuming boy who wins the fifth and final “golden ticket,” is played by Gabriela Sanchez, who showed versatility and a nimble voice. But in addition to the singing, which was spot on, Charlie does some dancing and shows a full gamut of emotions—from despair to hope, from shame to elation. Ms Sanchez delivers the character as if she knew Charlie herself.

But even with Mr Hawkins and Ms Sanchez treating our ears and our hearts to this timeless tale of childhood, first put on the musical stage in 2004, the standout character acting award in Rockville this time around goes to Luke Benedict Guthrie, a junior at the high school who played Augustus Gloop, a portly Bavarian boy who is unabashedly obsessed with eating, even if it means he has to sneeze into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.

There aren’t many shades of gray when it comes to morality in this musical: children are either bad or good, and when they’re bad, they are the utter embodiment of their vices, such as Mike TV, who’s obsessed with TV; Veruca, who’s a little brat; and Augustus, who’s a greedy glutton. In real life, neither schools nor children are quite so one-dimensional, but Mr Guthrie’s portrayal here was simply off the charts and makes the trip to the high school worthwhile for fans of a good and enjoyable show.

Music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, adapted for the stage by Mr Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald, based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. In performance at Rockville High School in Rockville, Maryland, March 30–April 1. Musical productions in high schools often include the hard work of hundreds of students, teachers, and other community members. We write about them in support of new federal legislation in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which directs schools to include music and the arts as part of a “well-rounded education” for students in the US.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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