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Matt Van Gessel’s Mysterious “Willy Wonka”

Lots of people like “Willy Wonka.”

Matt Van Gessel loves “Willy Wonka.”

The 2011 Staples grad — now a rising sophomore at North Carolina School of the Arts — has vast experience playing not-quite-normal characters. (Remember the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors”?)

This weekend he gets his shot at another. Matt stars as Willy Wonka in Staples Players’ summer production of the same name. The show runs Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., in the high school auditorium.

Matt Van Gessel (Willy Wonka) and Maddy Rozynek (Violet Beauregarde). (Photo/Kerry Long)

Matt knows a lot about the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” He says that Gene Wilder — Willy — saw it as a movie for adults, not kids.

Wilder “seems whimsical and crazy, but viewed from an adult perspective, we see the creepy resentment he has toward kids,” Matt says. “Every time I watch his performance, I find something new and unusual.”

Matt says that Willy feels “very pleased with himself when each kids gets his comeuppance — like when they turn into blueberries and shrink. Justice has been done. It’s a twisted way of teaching kids lessons.”

Matt adds, “Willy Wonka is an instantly recognizable cultural character, like King Kong. Everyone knows who Willy is, but I’m approaching it with an open mind. I’m not copying Gene Wilder. I’m just using him for inspiration, so I can arrive at my own interpretation.”

Matt has also seen the 2005 movie version, with Johnny Depp.

Using those two actors as inspiration, Matt says, “I think I can bring the arc of a real character.” His Willy is “a bit more accessible as a real human being. He has depth, and soul.”

Matt draws upon the lives of “real life eccentrics,” like Salvador Dali, Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson.

Johnny Shea (Grandpa Joe) and Will Haskell (Charlie) in the “Fizzy Lifting Room.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Directors David Roth and Kerry Long have enjoyed working with a large ensemble. The show features popular songs like “Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination.” It’s got every trademark of a Staples Players production, including spectacular costumes.

Matt is excited about all that. But — as a self-described Willy Wonka “obsessive” — he always comes back to his character.

“I’ve put a large amount of thought into Willy’s objectives, and ulterior motives,” the lead actor explains.

“Some of those ideas I haven’t told to anyone, including Mr. Roth. I like being able to keep Willy Wonka’s secrets. It adds an air of mystery to everything.”

(Click here for ticket information on “Willy Wonka.”)

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