The presenting of a world that cannot be logically explained is called Theatre of the Absurd. Where an actor’s voice and body should remain the spectacle, that is something we call Poor Theatre. Usually referring to several unofficial theatre companies performing challenging or controversial works at the same times, theatre goers have referred to this type of theatre as Fringe.
So then, what does one call a musical that is reverent, challenging, imaginative, and poetic…yet poorly written? “Theatre of the Suck?” “Bad Theatre?” How about, “The Dumb Show?”
I have a hard time exercising a notion that anything derived from a beloved children’s book could ever be dumb. I mean, 90% of children’s literature has us chasing run-away meatballs or galavanting off into the woods with Whosits and Whatsits galore! This isn’t Shakespeare madame!
I’m currently playing Mr. Salt and The Candyman in the musical stage version of Willy Wonka at Spring Mt. Valley Ranch in Vegas as part of the city’s Super Summer Theatre program. I have been having the time of my life which challenges my inner-most intellectual actor. You see, the script for the musical (offered by Music Theatre International) is…well….bad. It’s not good. And while I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of “making chicken salad out of chicken poop” as my friend Chris likes to say, I find that my normal approach in this project has been somewhat rattled with conflict. What do you do with a bad script?
I recall a time before I even auditioned, sitting in a dressing room, aging myself to look like a forlorn sheriff, listening to Bon Jovi on someone’s far away CD player and taking theatre, slipping in cliche’ terms to sound important….and mentioning the upcoming auditions. “Well the show sucks” commented a friend who on more than one occasion I’ve taken advice from and who often uses bigger words than “sucks.” “And I’m NOT gonna be a freakin’ Oompa Loompa!” They hinted at the fact that the stellar dancers would all wind up Loompas…and in fact they were right.
I was convinced that while I loved the movies and books…I would not audition. Later, while I quickly shimmied out of my peppermint striped pants and into my grey shark-skin suit during my quick change, I thought to myself “this is a challenge!” At the time I was referring to my foot. (It didn’t want to go in the leg hole! Go int he leg hole, you foot! You only have 30 sec. for this change! Go in the leg hole!!!!!! Aaaahhhh!!!!) Luckily my dear friend Amanda was there (she volunteered to be my changer…a move I attribute to the fact so that she can mess with me) and she guided my foot….then sha-zam! I was dressed in no time.
The familiar songs / lyrics are there and I truly have the priviledge of singing “The Candy Man” in the show, which is the best song of the show in my opinion. (Love ya Sammy!) But, the mess is made in the translation of the beloved movie version to the stage. There are obstacles that need addressing that are simply glazed over, and there remains segmented musical tid-bits that are as long-lasting as a single spearmint Chicklet. Some may say disappointing. But, compared to what? Wonka appreciates the fact that no everyone will like EVERY candy bar. I can’t imagine there ISN’T a child out there who would prefer a Slugworth Sizzler. And you know what…who cares if there is! We can only work on creating what WE believe in..and HOPE others will enjoy as well.
I leave a great deal of room for the respect I have for the creative team on this project. Anyone that has a bad word to say about Phil Shelburne, Shannon Cook, Rommel Pacson and Tim Cooper will have to deal with me!
Perhaps I’m being too critical. I mean, obviously someone thought it was genius. Music Theatre International wouldn’t publish and distribute just anything…would they? So, I give great credit to the laborous hours we spent toiling over the subtext and the meanings and intentions before, after and behind the words in the script. Were we successful? Who can tell really…and the reviewer seemed as vanilla as single scoop ice cream…bland on opening night. Perhaps a Laffy Taffy joke would have helped.
But that’s the point, I think. There is a line in the Tim Burton version when Mike Teavee is challenging the grinning Wonka and says “what’s the point of all of this! It’s pointless!” and Charlie Bucket turns to him and says, “it’s candy. It doesn’t have to have a point.”
The hidden smile behind that notion is what brings me back to the present day. I genuinely look forward to Wednesday and performing in this bubble gum musical. I think it is because of the amazing ensemble I have the privilege of working with. The children in the show alone are full of life and recharge my batteries every night. I admire their professionalism and cannot express how their energy makes me a better actor. (Even if the one keeps wiping his nose on my pants.)
Another reason to brave the dusty trails of Spring Mtn. Valley Ranch and endure the love-wrought brays from the burros in the hills, has to do with the audience. We’ve been working full houses…and they truly seem to enjoy it. (The children do anyway. One kid squealed so loud it scared me.) Granted the movies have done a great deal as far as helping us market the show, but I like the idea that the audience might be there for the sole purpose of wondering what’s behind the next corner during the factory tour as well. It’s compelling to me to think that regardless of whether or not our Oompa Loompas are CGI generated or merely lanky community folk in purple spandex…the audience will accept it. It’s theatre…and there is always an element of imagination and forced perceptions. Right? Perhaps that what I like about the show. It’s simple…and sweet…and stupid. And people like simple, sweet and stupid.
Challenging theatre is rewarding and a thrill to do, when done well. But, there is something to be said for theatre that wraps itself in “possibility” and offers a light offering of fun, creative, and lively theatre that transports audiences to a simple world of silliness, double-bubble burp-a-cola, and Snozzberries. It’s good, clean nonsense. And compared to “legitimate, good” theatre that I’ve done, and walked away from burdened (for whatever reason)…I will willingly accept the jab in my gut from my little Veruca and pass out paper mache lollipops to my scene mates until the fat Wangdoodle sings!
“It’s shear theatre. Nothing more that cotton candy and treacle.” That’s right. And I think it’s good. And that world tastes good….cuz the Candyman thinks it should.