Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Arizona Broadway Theatre

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I hope nothing's seriously wrong with the woman who plays Violet Beauregarde in Arizona Broadway Theatre's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which doesn't come with a printed program). She was missing this morning, causing her and Mrs. Beauregarde's parts of the factory scenes to be cut. That's a shame.

I'm pretty sure her absence is to blame for the technical glitches and truck-size pauses in the performance, and with a bit more notice, whether the actress returns immediately or not, the company should have a chance to adjust. It's still a short-yet-draggy show with no songs, but if the magic comes back, it's suitable for little kids. (Not that I think little kids don't deserve excellent theater -- but there are some things they can tolerate that you and I cannot.)

Roald Dahl's book is pretty terrific, as far as I'm concerned, and actor John Wagner nails the Willy Wonka most of us have in our minds: brilliant, peevish, enigmatic, and a bit on the supernatural side. (I particularly love the blasé way he says, "No. Don't," whenever a child is trying something dangerous.) Whoever plays Veruca Salt is a standout as well, so vile and annoying and perfectly groomed that it's obvious nothing other than 100 squirrels could tame her.

The costumes and sets are quaint and serviceable, but that's about where the fun stops. Times are tough, still, especially in disposable-income-based industries like entertainment, so that might be one reason ABT didn't arrange to get the rights to a better script, which would probably come with higher royalties to pay. But dang, this one's really quite bad, especially where the demands of live theater caused the adapter to diverge from Dahl's original wording.

At the top of the show, a guy in a sweater vest rambles on and on about the backstory (chocolate, spies, no chocolate, chocolate again, no one goes in or out, Golden Tickets). It's a good thing people under 10 don't drink beer in public, or he might well have been pelted with bottles the way John Cougar (not yet once again Mellencamp) was when he opened for The Who in 1982.

After each "bad child" meets his or her fate, Oompa-Loompa puppets jiggle under a blacklight and chant the well-known rhymes that contain the moral of each episode. The ability of the cast to chant in unison leaves something to be desired, though, and not much of the cleverness is intelligible. Eventually (the whole thing takes less than an hour, sans Violet), Charlie is awarded the factory, and boom! baby, it's over. (You can tell, because the curtain call commences.)

I think ABT puts on some of the best shows of any kind in the Valley -- not just musicals, and not just musicals at dinner theaters. But I feel kind of cheated and abused by this, the first example I've caught of their Theatre for Young Audiences series (which, by the way, comes without food included in the ticket price, but you can buy snacks and beverages at the bar).

In a rather cool cross-promotion, Cerreta Candy Company of Glendale is offering special "Charlie bars" in the lobby for $2, and buying one gets you a chance to win tickets to next season's kids' shows along with a basket of Cerreta goodies and a tour of a real chocolate factory. That would be even more fabulous if it weren't that you can arrange to go on a tour anyway.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues, in bracing morning matinees, through Saturday, July 9, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. For tickets, $12 each, click here or call 623-776-8400.

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