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Q&A with 'Willy Wonka' artistic director Liz Bertsch spills about new Eastside play

If You Go

What: Eastside Theater Co. presents "Willy Wonka," a rollicking take on the classic Roald Dahl tale and 1971 Gene Wilder movie

When: Fridays-Sundays, Feb. 28 through March 8; 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Eastside Theater Company playhouse, Springwater Church, 3445 S.E. Hillyard Road, Gresham

Tickets: $9:50, $12

For tickets and information, visit: eastsidetheater.com or call 971-231-5032

COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - Anchored by Simeon Johnson, center, as the title character, part of the Eastside Theater Companys cast of Willy Wonka rehearses for the upcoming run of shows for the classic tale of an eccentric chocolate factory owner and the children who get to tour it. Gresham's Eastside Theater Company has concocted a sure-fire recipe to counter mid-winter gloom 'n blues with its upcoming multi-show runs of "Willy Wonka" and "Leaving Iowa" in late February and early March.

Both shows feature dynamic, talented casts and crews of local kids 18 and younger who are getting prepared to delight audiences with a mixture skewed comedy and childhood innocence that permeates both productions.

Eastside's "Willy Wonka" production borrows from the beloved 1971 film version "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" starring Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson. Artistic Director Liz Bertch and her cast also add their own nuances to the story of Roald Dahl's classic story of Charlie Bucket, a boy whose dream to tour Willy Wonka's fantastical chocolate factory comes true, but not quite the way he imagined.

In its next edition, The Outlook will talk with Director Jess Sheppaard about "Leaving Iowa." This week, Liz Bertsch shares her thoughts on "Willy Wonka."

The Outlook: What inspired you to take on Willy Wonka? Did you grow up with the books and movies?

Liz Bertsch: I grew up watching the Gene Wilder movie. I have always loved the music and the quirky nature of the story. The elements of hope and honesty winning the day in a world where the opposite tends to be the norm is also very refreshing.

The Outlook: Is this production "faithful" to either of the movies starring Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, or is it a different take on the story?

Liz Bertsch: Our script is very similar to the 1970s movie with a few differences. We have chosen to modernize the stylistic look of the show with the choices we made regarding costumes and set. The Oompa Loompas costumes will likely be one of the biggest "modern" choices for our audiences.COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - Eastside Theater Company cast members of Willy Wonka portray the hard-working Oompa Loompas, who get things done in Wonkas chocolate factory while chant-singing songs of their observations.

Outlook: This seems like a particularly fun production for youths to sink their teeth into. Did that make casting any easier or more difficult?

Bertsch: The nice thing about this show is how many large younger student roles there are. We are very fortunate this season to have many strong child actors. Casting felt fairly simple as the talent we have in principal roles just got so (good) as the characters when we were auditioning. Something very cool is that three of the five child ticket-winners' roles were able to be double cast. We're able to double cast the roles of Charlie Bucket (Sidra Cohen-Malon/Noah Feldman-Parks), Veruca Salt (Evangaline Bertsch/Bethany Bjorklund), and Violet Beauregard (Ava Gray/Amanda Bjorklund). We have a solid combination of veteran performers and new talent.

It has been fun and a special challenge to work with multiple roles that are double cast, but this has allowed us as an organization to showcase multiple students instead of just a select few.

Outlook: What did you look for in the lead characters of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket?

Bertsch: I knew I wanted to have Willy Wonka be a smooth showman vs. the crazy eccentric that many have chosen to portray his character. He certainly has his eccentric moments, but our Wonka (Simeon Johnson) has a warmer touch to the character that I believe audiences will enjoy. There are nice nods to the original film, but also little twists of our own Wonka magic.

Charlie Bucket in our show consistently tries to choose to remain optimistic even in his moments of big disappointment. I knew that I wanted Charlie to have dynamics. Sidra and Noah each bring something special and unique to their version of Charlie. I am excited to watch the audiences connect and feel for Charlie, whether that is empathizing with his disappointment or sharing in his joy.

Outlook: What are the biggest challenges with this particular play?

Bertsch: This is a large cast with MANY young cast members. We love working with them and watching them grow, but sometimes things take a few more rehearsals to really cement in. Fortunately we have had a longer rehearsal schedule, so that had been an obstacle we have been able to overcome.COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - Anderson Green plays Mr. Bucket and Sidra Cohen-Malon his grandson, Charlie, in Eastside Theaters upcoming production of Willy Wonka.

The other large challenge is the sets for the Wonka Factory scenes. Each scene is fairly short, but a number of them require a large set item for the scene to function. Plus our script really was written for a stage that has a curtain. The venue we currently perform in doesn't have a curtain, so this has provided us with a challenge that we needed to creatively problem-solve.

Outook: Do you expect a big audience response and the shows to sell out?

Bertsch: That is always the hope. Currently our ticket sales projections are trending towards a sellout run, but we still have some good seats still available online.


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