I must admit that the Gene Wilder film that this loud spectacle of a musical is loosely based on is not one embedded in my childhood memory, nor is the Roald Dahl book that originated it all. I have memories of the classic film, but nothing as fondly as some. So walking in to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and seeing the large silhouette of the iconic man on the curtain didn’t fill me with glee. I was as excited in the way that I always am when the lights dim and the show is about to start. My friends and theatre companions have all witnessed my childlike enthusiasm that I’m grateful to say never seems to dissipate no matter how many shows I see in a week (and I have to admit, with the Tony deadline quickly approaching, my schedule is packed). So there I was with my inner child clapping with excitement to see Willy Wonka take center stage.
And the musical theatre lover/geek that lives right along side that inner child happily joined in with the clapping because Wonka is being played by the always captivating Christian Borle (Falsettos, Something Rotten!). His opening number, “The Candy Man” (this song and “Pure Imagination“, the two best songs are written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley specifically for the film), is like hot chocolate to the brain as he invites us into the land of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And its true, general speaking, that the Candy Man makes everything he bakes satisfying and delicious. This musical is as sweet and charming as can be, with a gleefully dose of wickedness that isn’t too dark or deadly (book: David Greig; Music: Marc Shaiman; lyrics: Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman). I wouldn’t say this show is made with love, as the song suggests, as it does have a corporate feel to the procedures, but it does make the world taste pretty darn good. It is true that some children die in this dark musical comedy, as we know they would on Wonka’s golden ticket tour, but it wouldn’t be Wonka with out a few naughty brats getting their comeuppance. It is based on the slightly macabre story by Dahl, so it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but I must admit those squirrels did make me gasp at one point.
Directed by Jack O’Brien (Hairspray, The Coast of Utopia) for the Broadway stage (the West End production had a different director: Sam Mendez, choreographer: Peter Darling, but the same designer: Mark Thompson albeit a different design), the production whistles along quite competently hitting all the right notes of wonder, sweetness, and more importantly, devilishness when the recipe starts feeling a bit too sweet. The look is unique and has moments of inventiveness and wonder, and others surprisingly bland. I can’t say this musical is a revelation in anyway, and at times the story lacked a strong drive forward. The musical moves from one part of the tour to the next, as if we were dutifully following our guide holding up an umbrella so we wouldn’t lose him or wander off. I was never bored, gladly looking at all the sights on the red bus tour, but I can’t say I was fully engaged with my heart or my soul.
Charlie, the young man who from the get-go is the obvious successor, is played dutifully by Ryan Foust at the performance I saw (the other Charlies on rotation are Jake Ryan Flynn & Ryan Sell – what’s with all the Ryan Charlies??). He has a lovely balance of a good boy who doesn’t always do what he’s told, but his heart is obviously as golden as the ticket he covets. The bed-ridden grandparents (Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Paul Slade Smith), and especially the adorable child-like Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the 1972 production of Pippin) are all a hoot, hitting all the (slightly obvious) jokes with ease, as does the mother. The amazing Emily Padgett (Side Show, Bright Star) plays her with almost a too efficient an air making it a bit hard to believe she is struggling as much as she says. But her lovely sweet sad song and dance (choreography: Joshua Bergasse) about Charlie’s father, “If Your Father Were Here“, is beautiful albeit a wee bit corny. I could have done without the vintage veggie lady, Mrs. Green (Kyle Taylor Parker). Although her lines are mildly funny, it doesn’t add much to the whole affair, beyond feeling a bit too ridiculous.
The other golden ticket winners, and their guardians, all played convincingly by older than expected actors, adds a level of nasty fun. Having the children played by obviously older actors seems to give the piece some sort of permission to be a bit nastier to them when they get what’s coming. It lets Wonka off the hook in a way and doesn’t turn him into a villain. Each duo has a fun number in a style paralleling their persona. The Bavarians (Augustus Gloop/F. Michael Haynie, Mrs. Gloop/Kathy Fitzgerald) and the Russians (Veronica Salt/Emma Pfaeffle, Mr. Salt/Ben Crawford) are more manic and exuberant then either of the Americans (Violet Beauregarde/Trista Dollison, Mr. Beauregarde/Alan H. Green) who are a tad dull in comparison. The Idaho ‘boy’ (Mike Teavee/Michael Wartella) is just plain annoying but I’m guessing that was the point, making him the poster child for all things wrong with teens these days, so I was happy to see him zapped away. Mrs. Teavee on the other hand is far more fun, and it’s no surprise she is played by the hilarious Jackie Hoffman.
The real man of the 2 1/2 hours is Christian Borle, as the master chocolate maker himself, Willie Wonka. Borle is having a grand time giving us all the shtick of a great vaudevillian, with just the right timing and enough mischief to make it work. He does not disappoint. Sadly the songs and direction are uneven and sometimes down right slow. Nothing really lives up to that first magical song he sings. And when spectacular is called for, we get colorful but not eye popping (video/projection design: Jeff Sugg; lighting design: Japhy Weideman). All the Wonka fanatics, and the theatre was filled with young souls brought up on Wonka books, movies, and splashy child friendly musicals, waiting with excitement for the Oompah Loompahs to make their entrance. And they are greeted with excited applause. They are a fun theatrical invention that seems to thrill the crowd (puppetry design: the magnificent Basil Twist). I’m not sure I was the intended audience as I have no real memory or attachment to the book, and a very slight one to the movie, but for those that do, this sweet confection will go down easy and bring a smile to your face. It won’t nurture your soul, mind, or make you wide-eyed with astonishment but for all those Wonka enthusiasts, you’ll be satisfied. All I could ponder as I made my quick exit was maybe the Candy Man can’t make everything satisfying and delicious, but he can make it semi-sweet.
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