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Photo courtesy of Pat Kerley

Norman Colwell, Max Barrera, Erin Tarango, Marie Colwell, Deanna Rogers and Daniel Gerder appear in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

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The cast of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

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Kenneth Whitchard appears in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

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Max Barrera and Norm Colwell appear in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Few books are considered classics until years after their first printing. Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is the happy exception.

This magical story about a little boy from a poor family who finds a golden ticket inside a Willy Wonka candy bar wrapper was an instant hit with young readers when it first appeared on bookstore shelves in 1964 -- and it's still a favorite of the current generation.

In 1975 Richard S. George, a New York schoolteacher, wrote a play that's an adaptation of the novel -- the only one approved by Dahl -- and that's the version Bakersfield Community Theatre is using for its performance, which opens Friday with a cast of 31 ranging in age from 5 to 65 plus.

"My cast is very diverse -- I've got every age and demographic," said director Pat Kerley. "The children are every size, age and color."

Kerley invited me to attend last Sunday's "tech" rehearsal. That's the term theater folks use for the run-through that's usually done four or five days before the opening and is meant to check such things as lighting and sound, placement of props, and to make sure everybody knows where and when to enter or exit.

Also, actors are expected to have their lines down pat by this time. It seemed to me that everybody in the cast knew their lines and that says a lot for both the kids and their parents, who I'm sure played a strong but invisible supporting role.

True, I couldn't hear much of what the younger children were saying but I was sitting in the back row a few feet away from an electric floor fan. Taking a seat closer to the stage might make a difference during an actual performance.

Kenneth Whitchard as Willy Wonka, is one of the few adults in the cast. His engaging smile, booming voice and enthusiastic manner kept the pace from lagging.

This is not a musical but one of the best scenes -- Kerley added it to the show -- is the cast's choreographed performance to the rhythmic music of "One Singular Sensation" from "A Chorus Line."

I was impressed by the colorful backdrops and sets, which were designed and built by the director and her husband Terry Kerley, with help from their son and daughter-in-law, Zachary and Ambur Kerley.

The props are comical as well as imaginative, especially the rickety Rube Goldberg-like contraption in which blueberry-flavored chewing gum is being tested. However, at the rehearsal the number and complexity of the props, which must be moved between scenes by cast members doubling as the stage crew slowed things down a bit. But again, that's what tech rehearsals are for.

Max Becerra plays Charlie Bucket, the boy who ends up winning the factory itself, and he does a nice final scene opposite Norman Colwell, who portrays his Grandpa Joe.

Kerley is ably assisted by stage manager Kathy Kozlowski and assistant director Deanna Rodgers.

Performances of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" continue through June 23.

I noticed a number of improvements in and around the playhouse. The premises look much better than the last time I was there about a year ago. The faulty electrical system has been repaired, Kerley said, and in the past six months, a crew of volunteers has cleaned up the interior, painted white lines to provide tidier parking in the back lot, and redecorated the women's restroom.

In the box office, which is a separate structure, the names of businesses and individuals who contributed their time and money to the refurbishment are inscribed on leaf-shaped brass plaques and affixed onto an attractive wall decoration called "The Giving Tree."

Songs for healing

Anke Hodenpijl filled me in on the purpose and progress of the Threshold Choir, a fledgling singing group whose goal is to bring ease and comfort to people who are facing death, grief or other kinds of suffering.

"I truly believe that art is a direct path to inner and physical healing," Hodenpijl wrote in an email. "Music has always lifted my spirits, even though I personally don't read music, I also sing in the Rainbow Chorus, in the car and in the shower. It is one of the ways I meditate. In that spirit of meditation and prayer, I wanted to take it that one step further (and) be of service to others."

Although the local choir is still in its formative stages, it's patterned on an international movement founded in 1990 by Kate Munger, who lived in Nebraska.

And now the Bakersfield chapter of the organization has become one of the latest additions to the Art for Healing program sponsored by Mercy Hospital. A two-hour practice session is scheduled for Friday and another on June 21.

The local choir was formed on Feb. 15 by Hodenpijl, Rose Lester, Kimberley Dinsdale and Pat Cowles, all of whom have been active in Art for Healing. They were inspired by their attendance two weeks prior, at a three-day regional gathering of Threshold Choir chapters in Santa Barbara.

"We intended only to investigate, not really knowing what to expect," Hodenpijl said. "Within the first hour of (the) meeting 30 other singers nudged us with: 'You are not trying to be a Threshold Choir, you are a Threshold Choir.'"

Threshold groups who have been singing together for years often work with hospice organizations, but Munger recommends that newer ones like Bakersfield's need to practice for at least a year before they are ready to volunteer their services.

"We invite all who feel called to do this kind of work to join us," Hodenpijl said. "Perhaps some are reluctant to sing at the bedside; these individuals can support us simply by singing with us at our practices."

Classes for young thespians

The newest offering from Bakersfield Community Theatre is an Arts Academy designed for children ages 4 to 18. Registration starts on Saturday and continues until July 8, when the first classes start.

Kenneth Whitchard initiated the program, which will be presented three times during the 2013-14 season in eight-week sessions. The first begins on July 8 and ends on Sept. 28.

Well-known in the community as an actor and singer, Whitchard also teaches vocal music at McKinley Elementary School. He has appeared in shows at BCT, Stars, Bakersfield Music Theatre and Spotlight Theatre.

But BCT, now in its 86th season, is where he feels most at home.

"My goal as artistic director is to see that BCT continues to grow and thrive in the years to come," he said. "BCT means a great deal to me and as long as I am on the board I'm going to make sure that happens."

Children enrolled in the academy will be placed in three groups: Broadway Babies for ages 4-7; Broadway Bound, 8-11; and Broadway Junior for those 12 and older.

Instruction will be given in vocal music, beginning and advanced jazz dance and musical theater dance, and acting techniques.

Classes will be taught by Moddie Mena, who works at Thorner Elementary as a dance instructor; Drew Hallum associate director of BCT youth productions; and Whitchard will teach the Broadway Escape classes for teens.

For more information, visit www.bakersfieldcommunitytheatrelive.com.