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Young performers team up for 'Willy Wonka Jr.'

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 1:16 a.m.

When it comes to a story for the whole family, you can't go wrong with a tale that centers around candy and, more specifically, chocolate.

The Petite Players and Stage Masters will bring “Willy Wonka Jr.” to life on the Grand Theatre stage for four shows this weekend.

Director Lorraine Mszanski said the show should be entertaining for theater-goers.

“As a director, this show has been fun,” she said. “The story is familiar to the kids so the material was not too much to get through and it has not been overly challenging.”

The 38-member cast ranges in age from 6-16. Combining the two groups for one show has opened opportunities for the actors, Mszanski said.

“The younger kids have a great opportunity to look up to the older kids and see what they should be doing,” she said. “Many of the younger ones have never been onstage before, so that is a great learning opportunity for them.

“It also means the older kids have to be on top of their game because they are being looked up to. It's a great situation for everyone.”

Mszanski said she is fortunate to have strong performers in the two lead roles.

“It takes a special performer to be Willy Wonka and the Candy Man, and Zachary Mendola is doing a great job,” she said. “This is the first time I've seen him doing a main role and we are very lucky to have him for this show.”

She had similar praises for Noah Madden, who plays Charlie.

“We were real lucky to have such a such strong performer in this key role,” she said. “He is so enthusiastic, which is exciting.”

Mszanski is not new to the Grand Theatre. She served as stage manager for the Main Stage season, then was asked to work with high school performers in the Stage Masters program. She took a year off to start a family, then was asked by producer/executive director Lori Kolodziej if she would be interested in doing a combined show with the young actors.

“Because I took off, I was able to go in and have a plan for how to spend rehearsal time,” she said. “When you are dealing with kids, you have to have a plan so they know exactly what they will be doing at each rehearsal, and it really paid off. They did a great job.”

What proved challenging, she said, was creating a set that takes the audience to the various locations in the show.

“Trying to put a world of imagination with different rooms on one stage is a challenge — especially to do it to a scale that will take the audience to those places,” she said.

Working with youth comes naturally to Mszanski, who was a baby sitter and nanny while growing up. At church, she taught religious education classes and worked with her husband on a drug-and-alcohol prevention program for kids.

“I guess I just fell into working with kids in the theater,” Mszanski said.

Her favorite moment in the show — in which she played Mrs. Teavee “back in the day” — is the sequence in which the ticket winners are introduced to the inside of the factory.

“It's the Willy Wonka scene from the movie and it's really kind of magical and great,” the director said.

Because the show is geared for a younger cast, the message is pretty clear.

“Wonka's big lesson to the kids is that it's OK to make a mistake, but tell the truth and take responsibility for your actions,” Mszanski said. “I hope people can see past the bubbles and silliness and walk away with that message.”

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1916, or cfrazier@tribweb.com.

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