The only mistake I made in choosing to review Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new musical, “Willy Wonka, ” is that I chose to do so on an empty stomach. With all that talk of—let me paraphrase Robin Leach here—chocolate wishes and candy-coated dreams, my sweet tooth couldn’t resist, not even in this bad economy, the over-priced three-dollar Willy Wonka chocolate bars on sale in the lobby. And how was it? Sweet and wonderfully satisfying. So was the chocolate bar.This hour-long, family musical adaptation of Ronald Dahl’s classic “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” imprinted in many of our memories thanks to the 1971 movie version starring Gene Wilder, retains and augments the famous Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley score (“The Candy Man,” “Oompa-Loompa,” “Pure Imagination”) but more impressively, thanks to a concise, funny and smart book by Bricusse and Tim McDonald, presents a far more satisfying conclusion/lesson. In the film, and if memory serves in the book, Charlie has two chances to betray Wonka. In this version, Wonka hands Charlie the proverbial keys to his candy kingdom after the boy simply confesses to one of his earlier gaffes. The message, it seems, is that everyone gives into temptation, makes a mistake and takes a fall, and yet it is in how you own up to it and what you do to rectify it that tells the world who you really are. Simple yet powerful. Sean Fortunato is delicious in the title role—this Wonka doesn’t “test” the children with sadistic glee as much as he has fun with them and delivers his lines with a wink-wink-nod-nod that will also amuse the adults. As Charlie Bucket, Patrick Andrews delivers buckets of charm and enthusiasm, and then some. And the rest of the eight-person cast, portraying multiple roles, make hilarious turns as the naughty children, oompa-loompas and adults. Director Joe Leonardo’s imaginative production, aided by a fine design team, mixes puppets, lasers, smoke and more colors than you could find in a crayon box, to match the original source material’s pure imagination. A delight on every level, and even for this sometimes-cynical big kid. Just make sure you eat beforehand. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, (312)595-5600. Wed-Thu 11am/Fri 2pm & 7pm/Sat 11am, 2pm & 7pm/Sun 2pm. Through Aug 17.