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Despite flaws, 'Charlie' holds surprises

Timing can be everything -- in ways both beneficial and detrimental. While Wheelock Family Theatre's new production of ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" rides the enthusiasm generated by last year's Tim Burton movie, it's awfully hard for live action to compete with the film's outrageously imaginative visuals and Johnny Depp's quirkily bizarre Willy Wonka.

However, if you can let go of those preconceptions, Wheelock's ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a lively interpretation of Roald Dahl's classic 1964 book, despite a weak adaptation by Richard R. George. The pacing and tone are uneven, bounding from a kind of cheery bedlam to relatively long periods of explanation/description that we long to see rather than hear. George also strips Dahl's story of much of its macabre darkness, making it cuter and sillier (and admittedly more friendly for the wee ones who filled the weekend matinee).

Director/designer James P. Byrne works inventively with what he has, even updating and Americanizing some of the details -- for example, narrator Dan Bolton vividly plays his role as a gung-ho TV show host -- as well as lifting some ideas from the recent film. And some of the moments that ring most true to Dahl's edgy tone come from the short videos (enlivened by Michael Duplessis's colorful animation) that Byrne cleverly inserts between scenes as cautionary commentary on the fate of the greedy children as they get their comeuppance.

Byrne makes clever use of the theater's balconies and aisles for extra action as the characters tour the chocolate factory. The main-stage set is dominated by two curved staircases leading to a high platform. Below is a raked circular platform on which dancers are transformed into the moving parts of the factory's machines.

The cast is excellent, especially the obnoxious children who win Willy Wonka's contest. Sixth-grader Talia Weingarten is delightfully shrill as the imperious spoiled brat Veruca Salt. Andrew Barbato brings high-octane physicality to the overstimulated TV addict Mike Teavee. Laura Morrell is the sassy, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, and Andrew Schlager gives the chocoholic Augustus Gloop a hulking piggishness. Khalil K. Flemming is nicely poised as the sweetly down-to-earth, gruelingly poor Charlie Bucket, but his character is underdeveloped and lacks the sense of wonder that should highlight the story's fantastical scenario. More than 30 other children lend lively energy to the roles of town children, Day-Glo-costumed Oompa-Loompas, and an adorable crew of squirrels.

The boldest casting comes in the role of Willy Wonka, who is portrayed by Wheelock's cofounder, Jane Staab. She mostly plays the character with a kind of benign mischief. However, in the video commentary close-ups, the twitch of her oversize mustache and the cock of a rakish eyebrow give a glimpse of the malicious glee with which the character dispenses rewards and punishments -- they all get what they deserve.

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