Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Growing up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the one book that was always out of the library, faithfully returning home a little more dog-eared after every ex-library adventure. Interpreting so well loved a book is only for the brave. It requires clear choices to convey Dahl's tale of a chocolate dystopia, with its manic Oompa Loompas and colorful child-murdering, candy creations. This adaptation, with just a few blips, rises to the occasion.

The show begins a bit slowly, which is somewhat unavoidable given that they have to cover a lot of exposition in order to be free to explore Wonka world later on. Charlie Bucket (Ryan Foust) lives with his mother (a winsome Emily Padgett) and four kooky bedridden grandparents (Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty and Michael Williams, standing in for Paul Slade Smith) including Grandpa Joe (played with believable bluster by John Rubinstein) with his tattered memories of General Custer. Little Charlie lives for Willy Wonka chocolate, and every year on his birthday he is given one bar. This year, however, his mother cannot afford even one celebratory morsel. When it is announced that 5 golden tickets for a tour of the Wonka chocolate factory are randomly to be sold in 5 out of thousands of chocolate bars, Charlie crosses his fingers only to discover his annual treat is not The One. He watches as the precious slips of gold are doled out to a series of annoying brats. First to win a ticket is lederhosen-clad Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie) whose daffy smiles unnerve in that "I'm scared of clowns" way. His classic Bavarian mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) and he sing rapturously of sausages. Next we meet nut-obsessed, pint-sized terror Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), a lovely ballerina who's got a lotta rage, and her weary father (Ben Crawford), a handsome, princely man on the edge of implosion. Along comes high-stepping Violet Beauregarde (Monette McKay, standing in for Trista Dollison) with her trio of gum chewing back-up girls and proud papa (Alan H. Green) who just knows his little girl is going to be a star. The fourth ticket winner, Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) is the original disaffected youth (you know, whatevs) whose devotion to all things techno contrasts with his mother (Jackie Hoffman, oh she of the perfect comic timing) in her 50's housewife get-up. Charlie makes one final stab at opening the 5th lucky chocolate bar -- and he is rewarded for his faith. Thus assembled the winners enter the factory, moving through room after room of color and delight. However, for some the delight is short lived as each spoiled child's weakness draws him or her in, literally and figuratively, to the factory machinery, never to be seen again. The last child standing is Charlie.

Ryan Foust as Charlie is believably earnest and innocent without being cloying, singing in a fresh and real voice that suits his age. Veteran scene stealer extraordinaire Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teavee has some delicious moments. You await each zinger with eager anticipation. Alan H. Green brings zip and flash to his role as proud father Beauregarde, and the floppy physical comedy of Michael Wartella as Mike Teavee is great fun. An ensemble of real triple threats dances easily through Joshua Bergasse's challenging, original choreography. And those clever Oompa Loompas designed by puppeteer Basil Twist. They are fabulous.

Act I at moments lacks vitality, as if the muted colors have at times muted the action. Act II fares better, with dazzling color and faster pace. The biggest difference, however, is that Willy Wonka is here. When Christian Borle takes the stage, it's as if someone has plugged us all in. He plays Willy Wonka in a broad vaudevillian style, yet always with the frisson of darkness that lies below his kaleidoscopic surface. A marvel of theatricality, with a great voice and a gift for physical comedy, Borle gives an electric performance of unflagging energy.

The set by Mark Thompson is comprised of cleverly devised mobile units that flow smoothly scene to scene. The elevated bed full of grandparents is particularly ingenious. His costumes have the same almost architectural quality. With its muted colors and hollow spaces, at times the stage in Act I does sometimes feel a little barren. By contrast, inside Wonka's factory backdrops drenched in Douglas Sirk-esque hues open up the playing space, which is lit with equal vigor by Japhy Weideman, enhanced by Jeremy Chernick's starry special-effects and Jeff Sugg's projections of moving fabrics and midnight skies. You feel the open space utilized to greater effect as the various chambers are delineated by changes in color and mood, into which set pieces of varying delight move around. One has to use, appropriately enough, one's imagination to complete the picture, the bones of which might just be a few well chosen sound effects or lighting cues.

Marc Shaiman's music is witty and fun, with cheeky topical references he and Scott Wittman must have had a great time coming up with. I would have liked maybe one song that really dug into the guts a little more. Marc Shaiman has graciously included the iconic song "Pure Imagination" in his score, even though it is not of his own composing. As beautifully orchestrated by Doug Besterman, "Pure Imagination" embodies the essence of Willy Wonka. All of the arrangements are impeccable, and played by a kicking pit orchestra led by Nicholas Skilbeck. Conversely, I did not like the inclusion of another non-Shaiman song, "Candy Man" in the score. It's unnecessary and not all that interesting. I would prefer to hear something original like the final duet between Wonka and Charlie. It is Shaiman's answer to "Pure Imagination," expanding beyond the individual to a more universal wonder. With magically wrought starry visuals to match, this finale leaves a lump in your throat. It is a much more fitting ending than that final little hat tip of a few measures of "Candy Man," which kills the mood. Worse yet, Candy Man ends up being the tune you hum as you leave the theater.

In the end, though, Jack O'Brien has directed an eccentric, entertaining and at times dazzling production of a timeless story audiences will take to heart, especially children. We are all hungry for a little space in which to dream. Without the freedom to dream one cannot chart more hopeful waters, and you can never have too much hope.

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Don't expect a sugar rush from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the new musical that opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Sunday. This latest adaptation of Roald Dahl's winningly sinister children's story from 1964 is — thank heaven — no sweeter than the two film adaptations it inspired, starring Gene Wilder (1971) and Johnny Depp (2005). Then again, this big but tentative show — which features a book by David Greig and songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — doesn't burst with flavor of any kind, at least not during its exposition-crammed first act. Only in its second half does the show acquire a distinct taste, and it definitely isn't confectionary."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

""Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a middle-of-the-road musical with a pale score, a flavorless book and a dearth of eye candy that could have at least made it a spectacle."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"For the most part, Jack O'Brien directs this dull, clunky adaptation of the book and movie with none of the wit of the former nor the dreamy wonder of the latter. Maybe kids will enjoy the gaudy design and veneer of sassy satire, but when you bite down, there's only empty shell. Younger audiences can cheer, but adults are bound to conclude that Charlie is like what happens with an Everlasting Gobstopper: lots of sucking."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"For those adults among us who prefer our cocoa confections bittersweet and extra-dark, that intro serves as a warning that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the perversely charmless new musical based on the classic Roald Dahl story, will have little to offer grown-up audiences. Kids might find more to enjoy in this frantic Frankenstein's monster of a show, but that doesn't make it less of a misfire."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"It's hard to predict how grownups might feel about this inflated musical adapted from previous stage and film treatments of Roald Dahl's beloved novel, "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory." (There's scant evidence that anyone went back to the original 1964 book for inspiration.) Savvy kids, however, might stage a revolt after seeing how the uncanny darkness of Dahl's imagination has been lightened and brightened in helmer Jack O'Brien's mechanized production."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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