Pure imagination: ‘Willy Wonka’ to be staged at Altoona’s Mishler Theatre

Will Jones sees “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka” as a morality tale covered in “weirdness and chocolate.”

“What’s really unique to me is the morality of it,” said Jones, who will portray the eponymous candy-maker in P&J Productions’ upcoming staging of Dahl’s classic story. “It’s a cautionary tale about children — and the enabling of children and the negative effects it can have on them.

“Wonka calls everybody in (to his chocolate factory) to teach the parents and the children a lesson. The moral is we love our kids, but if we overindulge them and enable them, it’s going to have a negative effect.

“It’s clearly the message, whether people agree with it or not,” he added, with a laugh, “wrapped up in Oompa Loompas, chocolate and music.”

P&J’s “Willy Wonka” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. June 14 to 16 and at 2 p.m. June 17 at the Mishler Theatre in downtown Altoona. Tickets are $20, and they can be purchased by calling the Mishler box office at (814) 944-9434 between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays or online at www.mishlertheatre.org.

The production, Jones said, is based on the classic 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring the late Gene Wilder, and it includes “the things people are used to, the Oompa Loompas, the songs.” Jones will even wear a replica of Wilder’s unmistakable costume.

There is, however, one notable change: In P&J’s version, Charlie Bucket is a girl, portrayed by Grace Ansley.

“It wasn’t a social statement,” said Jones, who is also a producer of the show. “Grace is the best person for the part. She was so good in the process of auditioning. She has all of the qualities you think of Charlie having.

“We thought, ‘Does Charlie have to be a boy, story-wise?” Charlie could easily be a girl, and people are going to immediately fall in love with this kid.”

Holly Smith, who is directing the production, as well as playing Mrs. Beauregarde, feels that Grace brings “more vulnerability” to the character.

“Her relationship with Grandpa Joe is much more sweet, too — that granddaughter-grandfather relationship,” Smith said. “It brings more to the storyline.

“Rick (Tully, who plays Grandpa Joe) and Grace have a great rapport, and it’s so sweet to watch. It really adds to everything.”

For her part, Ansley didn’t expect to be playing the role of Charlie.

“I’ve done theater since I was really little,” she said, “and I’ve been in some P&J productions. I wanted to go for a bigger role this time.

“When Will called me, I was really excited. It’s really, really cool.”

Since 1964 — when Dahl first wrote the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — people of all ages have been drawn to the tale of poor Charlie, who found a golden ticket to tour the mysterious Wonka’s chocolate factory, because “it’s the story of an underdog,” Smith said.

“You like when an underdog wins,” said Smith, who has also directed musicals for Penn Cambria High School in Cresson and worked with Jones on P&J’s “The Wizard of Oz” last year. “You just fall in love with Charlie; she doesn’t have a lot, but she is gracious and happy for what she has. Her dream is to just visit the chocolate factory, because she has heard so much about it.

“All of the other children (who, Jones added, ‘are more obnoxious in the stage play’ than the film) are in it to see what they can get out of it. Charlie just wants to be part of it.”

Jones is excited to take his turn on stage as the iconic Wonka.

“Wonka’s an interesting character,” he said. “He’s kind, but he’s also menacing and dark. There is a certain danger about him.

“When the kids each go through their different events, he’s like, ‘Oh well, let’s move on.’ There’s a mystery and a sense of danger.”

Above the familiar story and the bright wonder of Wonka’s factory, which will be reproduced on the Mishler stage with a high-definition digital production package, Smith and Ansley are most excited about the cast’s chemistry.

“The cast is awesome,” Smith said, “like a little family. There is an energy that every person brings, including the ensemble, and it adds to the story everyone loves.”

“It’s such a wonderful group of people,” Ansley said. “You can really see the chemistry on stage. We’re having fun.”

“I’m excited for Central Pennsylvania to see this,” Jones added.

Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.