Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

‘CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: (left to right) John Rubinstein, Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle, Jake Ryan Flynn, Christian Borle, Trista Dollison, Alan H. Green, Jackie Hoffman & Michael Wartella. Photo: Joan Marcus

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CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl
Book by David Greig
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 W. 46th Street
(877-250-2929), www.charlieonbroadway.com

 

By Scott Harrah

It’s ironic that a musical best known for the song “Pure Imagination” has been re-conceived for Broadway with so little of it. Director Jack O’Brien, book writer David Greig and composers Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman have turned what was a flawed but colorful musical in London into a bittersweet curiosity on Broadway. The overall product will likely thrill many, but is mostly cotton candy without the substance or edgy humor of the book and original film on which it is based.

Anyone who saw the 2013 London musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory knows the show’s shortcomings could have been easily “tweaked” for American audiences. There have been four major incarnations of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel, a whimsical moral fable, from the delightful cult classic 1971 film adaptation with Gene Wilder to the digitally infused, Tim Burton 2005 remake with Johnny Depp, a West End musical adaptation and now this retooled and revamped reboot for Broadway. This “doctored” musical-comedy interpretation of Charlie is the weakest by far of all the adaptations. It lacks the charm of the 1971 movie, and also the sophisticated touches of the West End show.

Of course, there are spectacular production numbers that depict, with high-tech wizardry and Scott Wittman and Mark Shaiman’s effusive songbook, the classic tale of a group of children touring Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory.

Charlie closed in January at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and was a tourist staple. This reviewer saw Charlie in the United Kingdom two years ago and felt at the time that act one was too long for its own good, but the second act made up for it with songs and scenes depicting the dark, twisted fates of Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie), Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) and Violet Beauregard (Trista Dollison).

The big change from London is the opening number, “The Candy Man” (the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley song made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr.), which was in the 1971 film but not in the West End version at all. Instead of beginning at a dump, this Broadway edition opens in a candy store with Charlie (rotated by Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell in certain performances) and a surprisingly lackluster Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. He’s all ham and camp because he’s been given such flimsy material with which to work, and his portrayal of Willy suffers as a result.

Jackie Hoffman (fresh from her acclaimed role as Mamacita on “Feud”) is Mrs. Teavee, a pill-popping 1950s-style cartoonish mom, and she gets plenty of laughs. Ms. Hoffman is also less outrageous, in a good way, than she has been in some of her past Broadway work.

Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein) is featured prominently here. There are the iconic kids who’ve won golden tickets, from spoiled rich brat Veruca Salt (here she’s a Russian girl) and her number “When Veruca Says” to gum-chewing Violet Beauregard’s “The Queen of Pop” (in this version she’s also an African American hip-hop girl, but the song “Double Bubble Duchess” was more fun in the London edition). TV-obsessed Mike Teavee sings “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” with his mother and the ensemble.

As with the films, the true excitement doesn’t really start until we visit the Chocolate Factory with Willy Wonka. The British stage version was darker, more literal and more technically vivid, but here things are more colorful and—dare I say it? —cheesier. Of course, there are also the winsomely disturbing Oompa-Loompas (represented by actors in special costumes, a clever touch by puppetry designer Basil Twist).

While the London show had marvelously futuristic sets for the Chocolate Factory scenes, the Broadway sets by video and production designer Jeff Sugg and lighting designer Japhy Weideman lack the “wow” factor of the West End production. The song “Vidiots,” featuring various TV sets, had the gleeful, streamlined futurism of a pop music video or live concert in London, but is not as impressive here.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn’t as cerebral as that other Roald Dahl musical adaptation, Matilda, but it is still fun, particularly seeing the warped ways that Augustus Gloop, Veruca, Violet and Mike face grisly retribution for being annoying, self-centered children. However, director Jack O’Brien and book writer still David Greig have not solved the main problem that plagued the West End version: The awkward first act. What’s shocking is that, with all the changes made, no one could think of a way to make Act One more enjoyable.

The story of Willy Wonka and Charlie is timeless, but this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptation will be disappointing for fans of the film and the Roald Dahl book. It is truly a shame the people behind the show simply did not come up with fresh ideas to make this a more memorable musical.

 

 

Edited by David NouNou
Published April 26, 2017
Reviewed at press performance on April 25, 2017

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

‘CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: (left to right) Kristy Cates, Madeline Doherty, Paul Slade Smith, Emily Padgett, John Rubinstein & Ryan Sell. Photo: Joan Marcus

“CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: Ryan Foust. Photo: Joan Marcus

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

‘CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: Jake Ryan Flynn & Christian Borle. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: Ryan Sell. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’: Christian Borle. Photo: Joan Marcus

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