As a chocoholic, I felt uniquely qualified to address the retooled musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But as a fan of both children’s literature and Broadway, I came away disappointed, cheated of human warmth and theatrical energy.
Christian Borle leads the cast as a somewhat schizophrenic Willy Wonka; you’re never sure, when he opens his mouth, exactly whom you’re going to meet. (Act II opens with a malapropian patter song for Wonka, funny and smart but contributing to the sense that the candy man is of indeterminate age and mental state.) This version of the story turns Charlie Bucket into a latchkey kid, child of a single mother working double shifts, father missing and probably dead. Three boys rotate in the role. The smallest one, Ryan Foust, was on deck the night I went; he’s adorable, funny, and smart, if suspiciously sophisticated to be playing a youngster from a seriously deprived environment.
Charlie finds a new candy kiosk down the block from the two-story, tumbledown pile of junk in which he lives with Mom and four bed-bound grandparents; the shop looks like something from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and contains, in addition to shelves of bonbons, a television set and a dour clerk (Wonka, of course, shape-shifting to spy on the consequences of his own marketing efforts). The kid — the only genuine minor onstage — immediately recognizes it as a “franchise.” Planted in David Greig’s script from the beginning is the notion that Charlie is clearly the heir to Wonka as an imaginative inventor.
In its original incarnation, Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel is a morality tale about filial piety — the meek shall inherit the earth, virtue will be rewarded, all those old-fashioned values. This musical, with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (in addition to several numbers by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley transplanted from the 1971 movie version), carries only a whiff of Dahl’s story.
The biggest problem with the mishmash of a show is the fact that it’s placeless, set in some corporate trade-show environment specified, from time to time, with video projections. At its best this conceit offers the possibilities inherent in an invisible candy factory, functioning like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: When the utterly obnoxious Mike Teavee, updated in this production from having an obsession with one screen to having an addiction to many, disses Wonka by calling him a mime and tries to breach an invisible wall, he’s knocked on his ass. Wearing huge, expensive headphones and dangling an iPad from his pack, he gets a brilliant comeuppance for consistently disregarding instructions. First Wonka stomps his iPhone, to muted cheers from the house. But his transformation in the factory’s laboratory, not to be revealed here, is the perfect penance.
Teavee is played to the hilt by Michael Wartella, like the other obstreperous “kids” actually an adult; this casting decision is, I think, at the root of Charlie’s problem. Instead of cute and obnoxious, Teavee and his cohort are crass opportunists enabled by their parents. The gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde of the novel here becomes the “Queen of Pop,” with a loud posse and a slick daddy busily pushing his daughters social-media career.
The show’s major investment is in people, not set pieces; sixteen ensemble members play a variety of minor roles, most spectacularly the Oompa Loompas, engineered by puppeteer Basil Twist in a Japanese-inflected mode. They have tiny stuffed bodies and real human heads, and change color dramatically thanks to Japhy Weideman’s lighting. They wield enormous kitchen tools. Several of them don huge, bushy tails to become the factory’s squadron of giant squirrels. Their job is to sort hazelnuts the size of cantaloupes, and they’re pursued by greedy Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), a spoiled Russian brat in a pink mink jacket, accompanied by her goon of a billionaire father. Veruca is here styled as a ballerina, herself pursued by the squirrels, reminiscent of the rampant mice in The Nutcracker. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography appears in short bursts throughout; like the music it is eminently forgettable. A rare bright spot in the misbegotten production is downtown diva Jackie Hoffman, playing Mrs. Teavee as a Sixties Idaho housewife who seems downright delighted by the drastic transformation visited upon her errant son.
Given the impulse of the Welsh author’s descendants to monetize every last scrap of his product, it’s no wonder that movies, musicals, books, apps, and candy treats are issuing forth with Dahl’s name on them. Who remembers that Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox originated in a Dahl story? Last year was the centennial of Dahl’s birth; he died in 1990. During his lifetime he was known to denounce certain adaptations of his work, including the 1971 Gene Wilder film.
The musical distills the manic denouement of the 1964 story — in which the entire Bucket clan, family bed and all, is shoved kicking and screaming into a rocketing elevator and transported to a new home— into a treacly ballad, “The View From Here,” by Shaiman and Wittman, sung by Wonka and Charlie as their elevator slowly floats up. That sort of taming is endemic here. Instead of saving the marvelous gift revealed in the final moments of the book for the climax of the show, Greig’s script announces the scheme right at the top. Most kids will eat this silly undertaking up; many parents may be disturbed by the lack of real nourishment.
For the legitimate Dahl experience, best to go (or send the kids) back to the original text, a 155-page, large-type book that can be consumed in an afternoon and has more wit, sarcasm, and fantasy, including the wonderful doggerel verses purportedly sung, in the factory, by the Oompa Loompas. As for this Broadway version, once you get past the occasional violence, incredible rudeness, mild innuendo, and the $15 price tag on the Charlie copies for sale in the lobby — well, it’s sweet.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
205 West 46th Street