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Shea's receives first look at new 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

Roald Dahl's wickedly charming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" opens another chapter in its history when it takes the stage at Shea's on Friday to begin the colorful musical's national tour.

Buffalo audiences will be the first to taste this latest incarnation of the tale that, like a recipe handed from one cook to another, has had its ingredients tweaked and changed and tweaked again, from bookshelf to Hollywood to London, then Broadway and now, Buffalo.

The movies and musicals were born of the same book, published in 1964. During the time in his life when he was writing "Charlie," Dahl's toddler son was critically injured when struck by a cab, and Dahl's 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of complications from measles. (Dahl later was a strong advocate for vaccination.)

Rather than withdraw, Dahl maintained an outlook that life's hardships were meant to be overcome and its pleasures should be enjoyed.

As a mid-20th century writer of children's stories (he wrote for adults, too), Dahl was a sort of one-man post-war Brothers Grimm, allowing great misfortune to befall his lead characters. But since he also had a much better sense of humor than the Grimms, Dahl's tales are filled with totally nonsensical mishaps and misadventures, like being turned into a giant blueberry or packing four grandparents into one bed.

Their silliness pales, however, to the deliciously grotesque children who find Golden Tickets to Willy Wonka's enormous chocolate factory that looms over Charlie's town, a factory that holds both mystery and delight. The air of "heavy rich melting chocolate" emitting from the Wonka stacks is sublime torture for Charlie and a temptation for almost the whole world. "Oh, how Charlie loved that aroma!, and oh, how he wished he could go inside the fact and see what it was like!"

Charlie's dream wasn't just an adult guessing what a child would like. The wonders of making chocolate had been percolating in Dahl's imagination since he himself was a boy.

As he tells it in the autobiographical book "Boy," Dahl gained his appreciation for perfect chocolates when he and his classmates were recruited to be "tasters" by the Cadbury's Dairy Milk Chocolate company in the 1930s. They received boxes of newly designed candy bars and sent back their evaluations of how they tasted. It was "a golden decade" for chocolate, the author believes, when the great classic candy bars were invented.

Those chocolate innovations got the schoolboy Dahl wondering  about how the chocolate "inventing rooms" operated, and he dreamed of working among the bubbling pots of chocolate and fudge, where "I would come up with something so absolutely unbearably delicious" that Mr. Cadbury himself would declare it "fantastic, fabulous and irresistible."

From those musings, the wonderful Willy Wonka was born. Wonka shares with creator a continuing childlike joy in the marvelous and a pragmatic acceptance of unfortunate twists. Although Roald Dahl likely never wore a tail-cost of plum-colored velvet with bottle-green trousers, like Wonka he knew what children liked.

As he told an interviewer once, "My lucky thing is I laugh at exactly the same jokes that children laugh at."

Which explains why, for more than 50 years, children have been laughing with Willy Wonka.

THEATER PREVIEW

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" opens in preview Friday and continues through Sept. 29 at Shea's Buffalo Theatre (646 Main St.). Tickets are available at the box office, by phone at 847-0850, or at sheas.org.

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