|The cast and crew of 'Willy Wonka Junior' gathers backstage
before a production of the musical at Jordan-Small Middle
School in Raymond earlier this month.
PHOTO BY PATRICIA VALLEY
On a cool April night last week, eighth grader Corey Brackett’s powerful vocals rang out across the Jordan-Small Middle School stage. “Come with me,” she sang in the role of Roald Dahl’s unforgettable character Willy Wonka, “and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.”
It was an invitation that had been delayed for two long years. In early 2020, students at Jordan-Small Middle School began preparing for their big theatrical production: a musical of Willy Wonka Junior. By mid-March 2020, the sets were built and painted, the dances choreographed, and the lines mostly memorized. And then the pandemic hit.
“You guys remember the pandemic?” Director and Production Designer Tyler Costigan asked the audience before Saturday night’s performance to much laughter.
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters across the world, including in Raymond, and it closed JSMS’s theatre program for two years. However, in early 2022, the program opened once again with a return to Willy Wonka Junior. Several of the students who had been part of the original production returned in new roles, including Corey Brackett, who played Willy Wonka this time around, and Casidhe Madsen, who played Charlie’s grandfather Joe Bucket.Most of the cast and crew, however, were theatrical newcomers.
JSMS Principal Randy Crockett, along with several teachers, attended Thursday’s final dress rehearsal, which included a new complication: microphones. Windham High School student Al Potter joined C.J. Payne, the high school’s auditorium coordinator, as they volunteered to attach microphones to the actors, turn on the sound system, and then to ask if anyone had any questions.
One young actor raised his hand. “What if we don’t know what we’re doing?” he asked.
Directory Tyler Costigan shook his head, and the show went on. Backstage on Thursday afternoon was a flurry of costume changes, from candy kids to Oompa Loompas to squirrels. The young cast and crew moved like professionals; they knew where they had to be and when they had to be there, and they handled everything from costume changes to moving set pieces large and small on and off stage with no complications.
Under the direction of stage manager Clay Perron, a JSMS student who repaired Oompa Loompa costumes with a needle and thread during rehearsal, the backstage crew of Natalie Hayes, Fenix, Bella Doyon, Julia Doyon and especially Maci Sonia, in charge of the many props for the play, kept the show running smoothly behind the scenes. There were a few backstage tears, as is to be expected of both theatrical productions and middle school, but the students ran the show, and the parental volunteers only had to pick up the costume hangers strewn about the cafeteria floor. Director Costigan, Musical Director Ben Roberts, and Choreographer Valley had clearly done their job well.
Several young actors clustered around the cafeteria windows as the curtain call approached, peeking through the blinds to watch their audience arrive. Another actor ventured on stage to peer through a gap in the curtains. He returned with a breathless announcement: “There are people out there!”
“Don’t worry about the people!” Costigan responded before offering several techniques for combating last-minute stage fright jitters. Musical Director Roberts then led the students through vocal exercises and a calming meditation. With five minutes to go before the curtain rose on their production, Costigan called the cast and crew together, thanked them for their hard work, and said his job was now over.
“It’s your play now,” he announced. “Go and enjoy it!”
The production began with a spotlight on Willy Wonka, played by a whimsical Corey Brackett who really captured the mercurial candy maker’s character, as Wonka announces his retirement from the candy business. The action then followed the trials and tribulations of young Charlie Bucket, played by theatrical newcomer Madeleine Huff, who brought a sense of wide-eyed innocence and optimism to the role, as Charlie and his struggling family learn of the golden tickets hidden inside five of Wonka’s candy bars. Charlie’s four grandparents, played by Casidhe Madsen, Jaysen Lewis, Addy Madsen, and Alyssa Dismore, had the audience chuckling, while Charlie’s parents, played by Henry Fitzgerald and Sage Bizier, and his friends Matilda and James, played by Maria Rosetti and Anthony Mateo, delivered convincingly empathetic performances.
As the five golden tickets were found, the five winners and their families performed their hilarious musical numbers. Augustus Gloop, and Mrs. Gloop, played by Patrick Kerr and Nadine Daigneault, received lots of laughter for their memorable performance of the song “I Eat More,” while Lucy Payne absolutely shone in her performance of spoiled brat Veruca Salt with her father Mr. Salt, played by Layla Martin in a convincing mustache.
Julianna Vassoler, playing Violet Beauregarde, got another round of laughs for her interactions with her mother, played by Evie Behnke, and with reporter Phineous Trout, played by Dean Dufour. Rounding out the batch of bratty golden ticket winners was Lillianna Noble, who brought infectious energy and a perfectly sarcastic attitude to the role of Mike Teevee, with Emma Horowitz as Teevee’s somewhat beleaguered mother.
Once inside Wonka’s factory, the audience was introduced to the Oompa Loompas, played by Rain Thomas, Dylan Handlon, Flynn Kamba and Liza Powers, as well as several cast members who had previously filled the roles of the Bucket family and Charlie’s friends and who had just performed quick costume changes backstage. Rounding out the chorus of Oompa Loompas were Alita Sargent and Zoe Woodbury, who also played the role of squirrels escorting Veruca Salt to the trash chute.
As the play progressed, each of the golden ticket winners met their just deserts inside Wonka’s factory with creative special effects and splashy dance numbers. Eventually, Charlie was the last child remaining; he made a heartfelt confession to Wonka at the end of the show, earning the candy maker’s trust and control of his magical factory. The performance ended with a grand finale featuring every member of the cast, from Charlie’s grandparents to the Oompa Loompas, and more than a few tears from the cheering audience.
“It’s like I don’t even recognize my daughter,” one mother in the crowd said. “I mean, who is that confident kid up on stage? She looks so grown up!”
As the crowd came to their feet to give the cast and crew of JSMS’s Willy Wonka Junior production a standing ovation, the actors raced backstage, and the audience’s applause was momentarily drowned out by joyful cheers from the cast and crew as they tossed their hats and props in the air.
“We did it,” Oompa Loompa actor Dylan Handlon cried. “We actually did it!”
There was another round of cheering and a few high fives, and then the actors and the crew all raced out of the cafeteria to meet their adoring fans. <