‘Wonka!’ From Open Dance Project
Photo: Lynn Lane
A whimsical candy (arguably the world’s favorite) is in town, and Houston’s Open Dance Project is offering every generation the chance to peek inside its iconic chocolate factory — no golden ticket is not required.
Imaginations will run wild this weekend at Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston, as the professional dance theater company shares a taste of Willy Wonka’s whimsical wonderland in a family-friendly adventure that showcases the signature blend athleticism and humor of the group.
Premiering on February 18 and airing for two weekends, “Wonka!” will take audiences on a delightful journey led by a multi-generational cast of 24 dancers and aerialists, including members of the company’s pre-professional youth ensemble, ages 12-18.
Boasting visions of a river of chocolate, magic gum and soft drinks, the show is an hour-long tribute to Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, and if it celebrates the colorful spirit of the author, he also delves into the valuable life lessons that are so candidly addressed in his story.
The coming-of-age story follows a caring but helpless boy named Charlie Bucket, who is innocently portrayed by ODP2 dancer Gregory Richard. After finding the last golden ticket, he is one of five children granted a tour of Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory, operated by loyal Oompa Loompas. A series of tumultuous misadventures ensue, exposing the character flaws of his peers, from gluttonous Augustus Gloop and demanding Veruca Salt to arrogant Violet Beauregarde and television obsessive Mike Teavee.
“We’re looking for those stories that say something we believe in and give us the opportunity to have fun, be creative, engage in physical comedy, and explore diverse characters amidst the material management we think is really important,” says artist director and choreographer Annie Arnoult, who recalls reading the beloved 1964 novel in elementary school. “The beauty of this story is that the social criticism is clear. We’re going to dig into it and really indulge in the entertainment value of dancing.
As part of the Open Dance Project’s repertoire for family audiences, “Wonka!” marks the fifth world premiere adaptation of a classic children’s tale by the company, all of which were created for the same purpose. Arnoult and his dancers strive to ensure that such programming serves as an entry point for people young and old to simply fall in love with dance by making it more accessible and exploring various tricks of the craft who initially ignited their own passion for the art form. .
With a commanding stage presence, company dancer Joshua de Alba steps into the title role as an eccentric chocolatier in search of an heir. As he guides the crew through the maze of ingenuity, sporting the character’s signature top hat and tailcoat, the show is packed with acrobatics, aerial silks, hip-hop , tap dancing and more to a lively soundtrack that combines pop theme songs like “I Want Candy” with classic masterpieces like a Bach cello suite.
The music is interspersed with narration by Kevin Cooney, ensuring the script is crystal clear, and although the set design is minimal, the space is never vacant. Often the dancers even use their own bodies to construct certain objects, one being Willy Wonka’s gumball machine.
With balls tossed across the stage and batons thrown in the air, the production is full of fun at home, but it also provides the opportunity for deeper conversations once the curtain is closed.
“On the message front, it’s really about saying that children are the promise,” says Arnoult, “and as adults, we are responsible for raising children in a way that honors other beings. humans and doesn’t place itself at the center of the universe.. I think this story says it all in a way that will ultimately affirm people’s faith in humanity, while giving them an hour of pure enjoyment.
“Charlie Bucket, this young child with such a good heart, generous spirit, open eyes and a love of the world, is what we all need right now,” she continues. “We all need that childlike belief in possibility.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.