By Samuel L. Leiter
As we squeezed our way through all the Oompa Loompas, I mean small children, clogging the arteries, I mean aisles, of the Lunt-Fontanne after eating, I mean seeing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the first thing my granddaughter wanted was to tell about all the differences there were between this new Broadway musical and its two movie versions. The next thing she wanted was a chocolate bar (six bucks a pop at the concession stands.)
My granddaughter, by the way, is 23. While she admits she’s never read Roald Dahl’s popular 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she’s seen the 1971 movie (Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) starring Gene Wilder and the 2005 remake, using the book’s title and starring Johnny Depp, enough times to be a Wonka wonk. Considering the sugar rush palpitations of the young ones packing the theatre, she has plenty of company.
This is a revised production of the long-running show—book by David Greig, lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), and music by Shaiman, plus four newly added Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs from the 1971 movie—that recently closed in London.
Two-time Tony winner Christian Borle is the oddball, top-hatted, cane-carrying, cavity-inducing factory owner. Three kids alternate as the eponymous hero, 10-year-old Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell, whom I saw; Ryan Foust, and Jack Ryan Flynn). Three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien has taken over the direction from Sam Mendes, Jacques Bergasse choreographs in place of Peter Darling, but Mark Thompson, who did the original sets and costumes, is responsible for the new designs.
Greig’s updated book, which sticks to the familiar plot, is sprinkled with contemporary gag references (guns, North Korea, politics, celebrity, social media) aimed for adults and surely soaring over toddlers’ heads. Nonetheless, the youngsters at the preview I attended were rapt throughout. Although not a fan of Dahl’s high-calorie story even I found some of it satisfying and delicious.
While no show could compete with Hollywood’s special effects, there’s plenty of cleverness displayed in the gimmicky scenery (reportedly less elaborate than London’s) and ingenious staging. The child-unfriendly ways that punish the plot’s entitled brats are a hoot, and even queasy stomachs will likely ingest such comic images as people bursting into purple goop or dismembered by squirrels. On the up side, maybe some snot-nosed kids will learn the lessons of overreaching.
Shaiman and Wittman’s modestly effective score is sprightly and entertaining, although it sure helps to have it supplemented by familiar tunes from the movie, like the not-for-diabetics “The Candy Man” and the balladic “Pure Imagination.” Both are well sung by Borle, who has a ball pulling out all the stops as the madcap chocolatier despite pushing too hard when the show begins to lag.
For the biggest laughs, you have to wait for the singing and dancing Oompa Loompas to appear. Unlike the dwarfs in the first movie and the single actor, Deep Roy, multiplied up to 165 times, in the second, Broadway offers a chorus of short, white puppets (wonderfully imagined by Basil Twist) attached to black-garbed singer-dancers whose own bright faces shine under flame-red wigs. Large heads on little bodies is an old trick (remember the “Triplets” number in The Bandwagon?) but it’s still very funny when well deployed.
Fans should expect significant character revisions. Perhaps most notable are the obnoxious kids (played by adults) who win the Gold Ticket that allows them a guided tour of Willie’s reopened factory. The one good kid, Charlie Bucket, remains the poverty-stricken, selfless boy living in a dilapidated shanty with his laundress mom (Emily Padgett), depicted as a widow, and four decrepit grandparents (Kristy Cates, Madeline Doherty, Paul Slade Smith, and John Rubinstein), tucked into a single bed. Rubinstein’s lovably gruff Grandpa Joe makes a charming chaperone for Charlie.
Glutton Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Hayne), still a fat German boy, is now a yodeling Bavarian, with sausages coming out of his everywhere, while Veruka Salt (Emma Pfaeffle) is altered from a snooty British girl to a Russian ballerina in a pink tutu, with her father (Ben Crawford) a fur-collared oligarch. The bubble gum-chewing Violet (Trista Dollison) has been changed to a chubby, African-American, hip-hopper and YouTube sensation, the “Queen of Pop,” managed by a cool, shades-wearing, Hollywood dad (Alan H. Green). And Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) has given up his cowboy hat and cap pistol to become a bling-wearing, computer hacking, social media whiz, while his mother (Jackie Hoffman) tipples homemade booze. These mean kids and the Oompa Loompas literally steal the show.
For all its occasional adult-oriented wisecracks, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like the recent Matilda, another Dahl-based musical, is grand-scale children’s theatre. Mature audiences will enjoy it only so long as the kids do, which, artistic stumbles or not, is all that counts. Judging by the response when I attended, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes the world taste good.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
204 West 46th Street, NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).