It could be daunting to step into a role as iconic as Willy Wonka, etched into the memories of American audiences through the film portrayals by Gene Wilder, then Johnny Depp.
Wonka is a complicated character. He is sinister — unapologetic in putting four out of five children on the tour of his candy factory in serious danger — while somehow remaining likeable. His world is one of pure imagination wrapped around a resolute morality play.
Noah Weisberg, the Chicago native who takes on the role of the legendary confectioner in the touring production of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has worked to add even more depth to the character, aiming to tell a story that moves both children and adults.
The show opens at the Benedum Center on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 3.
Speaking from Boston — the sixth stop on the 24-city tour — Broadway veteran Weisberg tipped his hat to Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien, who, at the helm of “Charlie,” has created a show that maintains the familiar and most-loved elements of the films while adding new songs and insight.
“The great thing is, so many of us have watched especially that Gene Wilder movie so many times, and this show gives us basically everything you want from the movie,” Weisberg said. “It’s got the songs like ‘Pure Imagination’ and ‘I’ve got a Golden Ticket,’ and ‘Candy Man’ and the ‘Oompa Loompa Song,’ so it’s not going to disap- point anybody. But because it’s our own version, we get to take the plot to twists and turns that even people who have seen the movie aren’t going to expect.”
The new score, written by duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” “Mary Poppins Returns”) “deepens each character,” said Weisberg. “I always think and hope that if you’re going to take any sort of iconic movie, something that everyone knows, you better deepen it or do something a little different.”
Audience reaction shows their efforts have paid off, he said.
“In all these towns, when the adults bring their kids to the stage door to get our autographs after the show, the adults are just as giddy, and even more emotionally moved by this than I would have expected,” he said. “It’s a show that kids love, but like a great Disney movie, it plays on multiple levels. And it is infused with such truth, even though it is stylized and over the top because of what the source material is.”
The truths the show celebrates are ones with which Weisberg was raised as a Jewish kid growing up in Chicago.
“The beauty of this story that we are going across America with, is that the moral is that kindness and truthfulness and selflessness is what wins the day,” he said. “What a perfect time to be able to share that message of little Charlie Bucket in our show. And I think those lessons that I learned from my family, from Hebrew school, those lessons are in me, and I hope are a part of everything I play.”
While Willy Wonka could easily be played in a “mean-spirited way,” Weisberg said, he and director O’Brien went in another direction, examining each line “to find the positive response in all these moments. I feel like my family raised me that way — to look on the positive side of things — and I think that is connected to Judaism in a sense, too.”
Just three months after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building, Weisberg is pleased to be bringing the show to Pittsburgh.
“There are times when I think what we do is frivolous and unimportant, because we are singers and dancers,” he said. “But I realize in times of struggle and pain for an individual family or community, when appropriate, getting a chance to escape or actually relate to something on stage, and see a part of your- self on stage, is probably more important than ever. I think that in tough times, some- times having a place to go to laugh and to just feel connected to community is one of the most important things.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.