The producers of the stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, led by Warner Bros Theatre Ventures, have pulled a Harvey Weinstein. As Weinstein did with his stage version of Finding Neverland, they tossed most of the original U.K. production and came to Broadway with a fresh remake: Simplified production concept, significantly buffed-up score and American veteran Jack O’Brien replacing Sam Mendes, who not only staged the London show but was, and remains, a co-producer (with Warners and Langley Park Productions).
The resulting goods were unveiled tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne (where Finding Neverland ran, as it happens) and while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not enjoy more critical approval in its second iteration, it’s going to make a ton of money, both on Broadway and the road. It’s goofy, loud and imaginative — superlatively so, in some key respects. And it delivers two things children delight in: stories about scrappy urchins triumphing over doltish adults (cf Annie, Matilda), and comical obliteration of ill-behaved nasties (cf Shockheaded Peter).
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Based on both the 1964 Roald Dahl novel and the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that starred Gene Wilder (and gave Sammy Davis Jr. an unlikely hit with “The Candy Man Can”), the new show has a book by David Greig and a dozen or so songs by O’Brien’s Hairspray collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to augment the originals by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. It’s not as theatrically inventive as the Tony-winning adaptation of Matilda, and it probably won’t share that show’s canny ability to appeal to adults as well as kids. Charlie wears its kidness proudly.
Charlie, as you doubtless know, is Charlie Bucket, living in amiable squalor with his mother and two sets of grandfolks. By day he scavenges rotten cabbage for dinner; by night he dreams of his one annual bit of brightness, the birthday gift of a Willy Wonka chocolate bar from the mysterious local candy factory. One day, while dinner hunting, he comes upon a pop-up candy shop run by Wonka himself (Christian Borle, Falsettos, Something Rotten!, NBC’s Smash), incognito. Willy’s not very nice to Charlie, making it seem as if he’s about to give him a piece of the Heaven he can’t afford and then pulling the rug out from under him. But Willy does launch a global run on his wares by announcing that five bars have gold tickets entitling the owner to a tour of the factory and the chance to win a lifetime supply of Willy Wonka chocolate.
Charlie (played at the performance I saw by the appealingly Oliver-like Jake Ryan Flynn, one of the three Charlies cast, all of them, oddly, named Ryan) can’t afford to buy a bar and listens, his hopes diminishing, as news breaks from around the world announce the first four winners the gold bar derby. Charlie does manage, at the last minute, to get one as well, and that’s when the fun begins. The other winners are an appropriately cliché quartet: sausage-devouring German, privileged, ballet-dancing Russian princess; bubble gum-chewing nascent rap star; and techno geek (played by young adult actors F. Michael Haynie, Emma Pfaeffle, Trista Dollison and Michael Wartella, respectively).
Accompanied by his doting, dottie grandfather (the inimitable John Rubinstein, broadway’s original Pippin), Charlie arrives at the factory for the grand tour. Until now, the production design has been fairly modest (Mark Thompson did the sets and costumes), suggestive to my eye of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations for his The Little Prince. The factory isn’t much more elaborate, but it is more colorful. This is a production designed for easy transfer to the road, but it’s also the opposite of the London edition, which reputedly suffered from massive overproduction.
More important, it’s here that we meet the Oompa Loompas, the workers in Willy’s factory. They’ve been devised by puppet master and appropriately named mad genius Basil Twist as a cross between Bunraku creatures and the Munchkins of Oz: miniature puppet bodies are manipulated by black-garbed actors whose real heads top them, resulting – especially as augmented by Joshua Bergasse’s athletic choreography – in something I don’t think I’ve experienced since watching Laurel & Hardy in Babes In Toyland with the aid of organic mescaline. I leave it to you to find out whether it’s a good trip or a bad trip. The theater fibrillated with the laughter of kids as each gold ticket winner was dispatched according to his or her obsession (the nightmarish “Nutcracker Suite” devised for the Russian is particularly weird and, well, nutty).
Borle is less hammy here than he was in Something Rotten! and, before that, Peter & The Starcatcher, and the supporting cast does well by the Shaiman and Wittman numbers, which fill out the characters with considerable humor. Japhy Weideman’s candy-colored lighting and the video and projections by Jeff Sugg also add to the surreality of it all. The moments of pleasure for this adult viewer were decidedly scattershot, but this adult viewer was beside the point. Grown-ups will serve their purpose as ticket buyers, and their tykes will get the sugar rush.
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