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Chocolate Heart

The actor playing Willy Wonka gets a workout in the touring Broadway musical of a children’s classic.

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In the world of children's fiction, few titles are as beloved as Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

The tale of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket who wins a chance to visit the chocolate factory of eccentric recluse Willy Wonka, the book has sold more than 40 million copies, been turned into two films and adapted as a musical.

The traveling Broadway production of the musical is soon taking up residence at the Altria Theatre, bringing chocolate, Oompa-Loompas and some variations on what fans of the story's various manifestations may expect.

Interviewed by phone, Noah Weisberg, who plays Willy Wonka in the touring production, says the show is a thrill for people who already love the story, as well as those who aren't familiar with the work.

"I'm so proud of it, because I think we've struck the perfect balance between the book, which a lot of people grew up reading, and both movies," says Weisberg, reached while on tour in Hershey, Pennsylvania, of all places. "You get that plot line that you remember, but because it's a musical, you get so much more of the characters. You get so much more heart."

Fans of the 1974 Gene Wilder film, have no fear. Beloved songs like "The Candy Man," "Pure Imagination" and "The Oompa Loompa Song" remain intact, with new additions from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the duo behind the musical adaptation of "Hairspray." Originally staged in London's West End, the show was retooled for a nearly yearlong Broadway run before heading out on tour in 2018.

Weisberg says part of what makes the musical so entertaining is the work of director Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony winner who Weisberg calls a "living legend." Weisberg says O'Brien "wants truth onstage" and has directed "everything from Arthur Miller dramas to our show and 'Hairspray,' and everything in between."

"[The show is] so much richer and loaded with truth and sincerity than it could be in anyone else's hands," Weisberg says, adding that O'Brien stressed to the cast that they should create their own versions of their roles, instead of imitating other incarnations. "Jack hammered that home with us every day."

Weisberg, whose career has included film and television roles in addition to the stage, got an early leg up as a teenager in Chicago. While in high school, he attended improv classes with storied comedy troupe the Second City. His improv teachers were some dudes named Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

"They weren't famous, they were just these guys," says Weisberg, adding that those lessons still help him maintain his authenticity onstage, even as Willy Wonka. "You kind of let go, and then you have a real back and forth with the actors onstage. … It's in large part because of my training with Carell and Colbert."

Asked about the hardest part of the role, Weisberg says it's having the physical stamina to play the role eight times a week for what will be a 398-performance run.

"It's a real workout, because I happen to be onstage … a ton of time, and I'm singing, dancing, screaming lines and wearing a wool and velvet tuxedo," he says. "It's like being an athlete who has to sing."

Weisberg says there are a number of people, both young and old, in the cast that he's in awe of. As evidence of the cast's talent, he mentions that James Young, who plays Grandpa Joe in "Charlie," previously played Paul in "A Chorus Line" on Broadway, and that Madeleine Doherty, who plays Mrs. Teavee, has performed in "Les Misérables" and "The Producers" on Broadway.

"This isn't any sort of second-tier version. This is real Broadway folk coming through, which is a blast for me to act with," he says. "I'm really proud of our show. I'm really proud of our cast."

"Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" plays through Sept. 22 at the Altria Theatre, 6 N. Laurel St. For information, visit broadwayinrichmond.com or call 800-514-3849.

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