Hannibal Middle School performance ‘Willy Wonka Jr.’ brings salty, sweet to stage beginning Thursday

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Caleb Kurz performs on stage as Willy Wonka during a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon in the Hannibal Middle School auditorium. "Willy Wonka Jr." will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday and Sunday. | Megan Duncan

HANNIBAL, Mo. — What’s a musical director to do when there’s so much talent and not enough parts?

Stacy Mueller, musical director at Hannibal Middle School, says the solution is to perform “Willy Wonka Jr.”

“I am blessed to have a very talented cast, and I needed a show with a lot of little leading roles,” she said. “I had so many kids who I felt needed that moment and would benefit from that moment, confidence and performance wise.” 

The multi-talented cast, who began practicing in October, will showcase “Willy Wonka Jr.” this week at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the Hannibal Middle School auditorium.

From the Oompa Loompas, Charlie and the Bucket family, Golden Ticket winners and to Willy Wonka himself, each character has personalities as unique as the cast members who play them. 

Caleb Kurz is Willy Wonka. His confident and fun performance gives Wonka just the right dose of silly and serious. Caleb, a seventh-grader, played Hans last year in the school’s production of “Frozen Jr.” and also performed as a background character in the Hannibal High School production of “Cinderella.” He knew his character before taking the stage.

”I watched the movie a couple of times, and he’s just a really goofy guy, but he’s also proper at the same time. He does things to a T but also in his own way,” Caleb said.

Caleb said the cast and crew might mess around and have a lot of fun off-stage, but once the spotlight hits, they are transformed.

”It’s been really fun hanging out with other cast members during practices, but when we get up on stage, it’s just something else,” he said. “It’s really magical.”

Charlie Bucket, played by seventh-grader Korby Asbury, comes from a family that doesn’t have many possessions but lots of love. As the Buckets share heartwarming and funny banter, they celebrate Charlie’s birthday with a chocolate bar — while hoping to get a golden ticket that will award Charlie with a trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of Wonka’s famous chocolate.

This is Korby’s first on-stage performance, but the audience won’t guess it as he sings and perfectly portrays the always-cheerful Charlie.

“It’s been really crazy. I really didn’t think I would get the part because it’s my first time on stage,” he said. 

Korby and Charlie have plenty in common.

“I always try to stay positive like Charlie does,” Korby said. 

Charlie’s Grandpa Joe is played by Stephen Speer, who delivers one-liners like a pro. Stephen said it’s probably where he relates to his character the most.

”He’s very sarcastic and will always take an opportunity to make a stupid joke,” Stephen said.

Tegan Murphy plays reporter Phineous Trout, who keeps everyone up-to-date on Wonka news with hilariously in-depth interviews with each golden ticket winner and parent. From singing and dancing with the characters to delivering straight-faced news, Phineous Trout helps brings each character to life.

Technology-obsessed golden ticket winner Mike Teavee, played by Matthias Gosney, brings great laughs, even with his face barely leaving his phone. His mother, Mrs. Teavee, played by Adilynn Jacobsen, shares a chair-spinning and fun performance with Tegan as she interviews them.

Seventh-grader Emery McHargue plays Veruca Salt. The character’s name suits the salty golden ticket winner, who huffs and puffs around the stage, demanding her way. Emery’s smile and disposition off-stage shows she’s quite different from the character she brilliantly plays.

Emery, who has also been dancing on stage for more than 10 years, said the experience was much different than her part last year as young Anna in “Frozen Jr.”

“It was hard being on stage and interacting with each other because I really want to start smiling — but I’m not allowed to smile,” she said. 

Emery said a challenge in her role was to create a British accent for her character. With many hours spent practicing, she said her family has been a great source of help and may possibly be a little tired of the accent.

“I love my family,” she said with a laugh.

Seventh-grader Lucy Biggs played Mrs. Gloop, whose ticket-winning son Augustus Gloop was played by Preston McGuire. Lucy and Preston also mastered and sang songs in German accents.

For Preston, the hardest part was learning the choreography. The best part is being around the cast and crew who have become friends.

One on-stage transformation is when the gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, played by Ainsley Ahrens, turns into a blueberry. Ainsley, who said she loves to laugh and doesn’t always take things too seriously, connected with her character. She also said that was one of a couple of challenges playing her role.

”I didn’t actually chew gum, so I had to pretend I was chewing gum without actual having any gum,” she said, laughing and adding it was easier later when she started chewing gum. “It was also challenging to do a quick change into the blueberry suit.”

Eighth-grader Grace Briscoe is playing one of the five Oompa Loompas who sing their famous song to each Golden Ticket winner after their demise. Grace has never performed on stage, but when she discovered the annual play would be “Willy Wonka Jr.,” she tried out with only one part in mind.

”The signature thing for Willy Wonka is the Oompa Loompas, and I just thought that would be fun to play,” she said.

The greatest challenge for Grace has been balancing the play with her swim team schedule, but she said the part has been just as fun as she’d hoped.

For Mueller, directing “Willy Wonka Jr.” has required a new mindset.

“It’s unique to me as a director because this is very much outside of my comfort zone. I am a Disney magic kind of person, but this is whimsy and takes creativity to a different realm,” she said. 

The “Willy Wonka Jr.” set features the entire Wonka factory, including a chocolate river with a boat to carry the ticket winners and bubbles for Charlie and Grandpa Joe to float on.

Mueller said after she did the research and design plans, friends and parents of the cast came out to help with building “and just brought it to life.”

Mueller said she is excited to showcase the hard work of all those involved.

“From kids turning into blueberries, getting shoved down invisible shoots and even a kid shrinking —there are some comedic moments and some more serious moments,” she said. “I just want everyone to come out and enjoy it.”

Tickets are on sale at the Hannibal Middle School office. They can be purchased at the door.

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