Young thespians bring Wonka to the stage

Above, Oompa Loompas show their stuff. Below, Melissa Schoenen, the director of Chautauqua’s production of “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” lines up her crew for the bus. - Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo
Above, Oompa Loompas show their stuff. Below, Melissa Schoenen, the director of Chautauqua’s production of “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” lines up her crew for the bus.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo

It was a situation that called for theatrical nerves of steel — a leading lady battling the flu, an unfamiliar stage and chorus members performing in bright green wigs that began to shed all over the floor.

But for Melissa Schoenen, the director of Chautauqua Elementary School’s current production of “Willy Wonka, Jr.,” it was all in a day’s work.

Last Friday afternoon, the curly-haired, effervescent music teacher arrived at Vashon Community Care Center with a busload of “Willy Wonka” cast members. 

It was suddenly “go time” for almost 70 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who have been working with Schoenen since December on the show — an adaptation of the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and a significant expansion of Chautauqua’s already ambitious music program.

Would the eager young thespians rise to the occasion?

“I have full confidence in the kids,” Schoenen had said breezily the day before the show, “even though we’ve never had a full run-through with no stops.”

The performance at the care center — which served as a final dress rehearsal for three more performances scheduled at the school this week — exceeded even Schoenen’s expectations, despite a mishap or two.

The green wigs, which were used for the first time ever that afternoon, made quite a mess, and at the post-show reception, there weren’t quite enough cookies to go around — not surprising, given the huge cast.

But on the plus side, Kate Atwell, a fifth-grader starring in the role of Charlie Bucket, managed to hit all the high notes of her first song, titled, appropriately enough, “Think Positive.”

Atwell’s high, sweet soprano rang crystal clear, despite the fact that she was still recovering from the flu and many had wondered if she’d be able to sing at all.

And when it was over, the cast received a hearty round of applause.

“They were just fabulous,” said care center resident Dorothy Bardsley, who added with a smile, “Children usually are.”

Schoenen, no doubt, would agree.  

The 35-year-old music teacher grew up in Nebraska and graduated from Wayne State College in Lincoln where she studied music, majoring in voice performance and minoring in piano.

When Schoenen began her teaching career in Iowa 11 years ago, one of the first things she did was direct a school musical.

“Musicals were one of my favorite things to do when I was in school, and I love giving kids that opportunity,” she said.

Schoenen is now a veteran director of a dozen school shows, including productions of such blockbusters as “Guys and Dolls,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Annie.” Some years, she said, she has directed two musicals — one for grade-schoolers and one for high school students.

“I’ve never not done it,” she laughed. “It just seems like part of the job.”

Schoenen began teaching at Chautauqua in September, taking over the music department from longtime music teacher Carolyn Candy. And although she inherited a classroom full of musical instruments and a series of innovative programs Candy helped build throughout her years at the school, Schoenen wanted to add something new.

So, true to form, one of the first things she did was announce auditions for “Willy Wonka, Jr.”

She was thrilled by the response. Dozens of kids tried out for the show’s leading roles.

“It was very nice to see all those kids,” Schoenen said. “I knew a lot of the kids here were musical and into theater.”

She had a tough time casting the show, she said, but she made sure no one was disappointed: Any child who wanted to perform could join the ensemble as an Oompa Loompa — the tiny but tenacious workers in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

As the show’s after-school rehearsals progressed, more and more Oompa Loompas began to show up, and now there are so many in the cast that even Schoenen isn’t sure of their exact number.

“I performed in elementary school,” Schoenen recalled, “but after that I kind of lost confidence. So I try to search out those kids who maybe want to do theater but haven’t and kind of give them a little boost.”

Kate Atwell and Quinn McTighe wound up in the leading roles of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka.

Atwell, who at age 10 is already a Drama Dock veteran, said she’s had fun playing the role.

“I’ve always seen other people be the main character,” she said, “and I thought they were so lucky. This time, I’m the main character, and I feel a lot of responsibility with so many lines to memorize and so many songs to sing. Still, I feel really lucky.”

Maria Gilmour, also 10, plays the part of the ravenous young Augusta Gloop. The pint-sized actress has also appeared in several community theater productions, and her experience showed in her skillful, comic performance at Friday’s dress rehearsal at the care center.

Gilmour said she has had a good time working with Schoenen.

“She’s a nice lady,” the fifth-grader said. “She’s really patient and calm with all the kids.”

A homeschooler, Gilmour is still getting to know the huge cast of Oompa Loompas. “There are probably 20 or 30 of them I haven’t even met yet,” she said.

Still, after the performance at the care center, Gilmour said the show felt almost ready to go.

“They actually laughed at some of the jokes,” she said of the audience. “We didn’t know where the laughs were before. We’re warming up to the feeling of having an audience.”

Schoenen agreed.

“The kids have been great,” she said. “We’ve been working hard, but it’s been a lot of fun putting it together. I think we’re all excited to show off the final product.”

Public showing

A public performance of “Willy Wonka, Jr.” is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 19. Tickets are $2 each, or $5 per family.

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