"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" Encounters Assembly Line Glitches

The 8- or 9-year-old girl farther along the aisle from me at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory told me she was having a good time. I figured she was and also assumed she was speaking for many, if not most, of the children at a musical aimed squarely at them.

Since I can’t speak for them, I feel obliged to say that adults considering bringing kids to the David Greig-Scott Wittman-Marc Shaiman adaptation, at the Lunt-Fontanne, of Roald Dahl’s novel might want to act on their generous urge.

There’s enough on-stage pizzazz to keep the pre-teens charged and cheering at the story of chocolate-loving Charlie hoping to tour Willy Wonka’s mysterious factory on a hard-to-come-by golden ticket. This recommendation is in large part due to Dahl’s understanding that the under-12 contingent gets a big kick out of seeing their fictional peers behaving badly. It’s also in large part due to Mark Thompson’s imaginative sets that include all sorts of comically menacing apparatus and comically menacing out-sized animals.

But if I don’t feel qualified to speak for children, I can speak for are attending adults. Perhaps what I’m saying is that I can speak for myself and suspect, as reviewers always do, that others will be inclined to agree. As an inveterate adult chocoholic who balks at attending Chocoholic Anonymous meetings, I have to report that the sweets dispensed here have no appeal for me.

The sad truth is I didn’t like what I witnessed when I attended the 2013 opening night at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where Douglas Hodge played Willy Wonka under Sam Mendes’s direction and Peter Darling’s choreography, and I don’t like the enterprise now when it’s reached Broadway with two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, three-time Tony-winning Jack O’Brien directing and Joshua Bergasse choreographing. (The London version closed this January.)

A theater maven might have assumed that the producers waited four years to import it so the creators could industriously tweak here and here and there. No dice. They may have done their share of tweaking but to little avail.

The major change improvement is with the score. Most noticeable are additional Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley songs written for the 1971 Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory movie. For the London version only “Pure Imagination” was borrowed. For New York, three more from the hit flick have been incorporated—“I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “the Oompa Loompa Song” and “The Candy Man.” (Who around at the time can forget Sammy Davis Jr.’s jovial cover treatment chirping round the clock from Top 40 stations?)

It’s a good thing those in charge were smart enough to go this route. “The Oompa Loompa Song” sparks the musical’s most amusing number. The overture begins with “Pure Imagination,” and “The Candy Man” provides the exit music.

Wittman and Shaiman—their Hairspray ditties all winners (hurray for the propulsive “Can’t Stop the Beat”)—come nowhere near the Bricusse-Newley earworm level with the items they concocted for London—some dropped here, new ones replacing them. Granted, the new “The View From Here,” heard almost at the denouement, has an attractive lilt.

The primary Charlie and the Chocolate Factory problem is with the prolific Greig’s book, which, among other things, is all over the place. That may be due to the not uncommon belief that when pitching products to youngsters, those doing the pitching assume kids won’t notice inconsistencies.

Start the range of flaws with Will Wonka, whom the ever-proficient Borle plays gamely. Introduced smartly with “The Candy Man”—the lyric has him able to do all sorts of affable miracles—he remains somewhat kindly during the first act. This despite his often posing as a local confectionary-store owner who teases good-natured Charlie (Jake Ryan Flynn at the performance I saw) into thinking he’s about to be handed the elusive golden ticket that he does obtain in the nick of time.

In the second act, however, Willy is hardly the benevolent candy man he’s been described. Suddenly, he’s a harsh taskmaster, ridding himself of the four nasty young factory visitors (F. Michael Haynie, Emma Pfaeffle, Trista Dollison, Michael Wartella) by dreadful means (This is classic Dahl, needless to say.)

(And, say, where would this script be if the children accompanying Charlie were as likable as he is? The competition for the grand prize promised but not specified would be an entirely different matter.)

Much of the other elements in the tale don’t so much pay off as just disappear. Impoverished Charlie lives with his hard-working mum Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett) as well as with two sets of grandparents (John Rubinstein, Kristy Cate, Madeleine Doherty, Paul Slade Smith) who spend their geriatric lives snoozing in the same wide bed. All these family members—but not Rubinstein’s Grandpa Joe, who accompanies Charlie on the factory spree--vanish when the first-act curtain falls.

In regards to humor, of which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is totally devoid: book writer Greig is unable to land a single joke. Of the many giggles he goes for—including one belch punchline—he fails every time. (All right, the belch did elicit positive responses from the scattered peanut gallery members.) Actually, the zero tally in the laugh column is something of a backhanded achievement.

Given the wafer-thin meager material, the cast members are pretty much left to fend for themselves. In addition to hard-working Borle, many of them do better than might be suspected. Rubinstein’s bewhiskered geezer is a winning codger and a far cry from the Pippin he was so long ago.

The golden ticket-holding brats—on-pointe and headstrong Pfaeffle as Veruca Salt, sold-on-himself Wartella as Michael Teavee, gum-popping Dollison as Violet, sausage-gobbling Haynie as Augustus—give it their considerable all. Always hilarious Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teavee in weighty wig is amusing. Maybe she should have been encouraged to supply her own dialogue, as she definitely knows how to shape something truly funny.

Flynn as Charlie is certainly the well-trained professional child actor and is to be commended for more than holding his own. He’s one of three young men alternating in the role. The others are Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell (that’s a lot of Ryans), who presumably also know how to hold their own when they’re in the Charlie spot.

Charlie Bucket is, as this treatment has it, the title character, rather than Willy Wonka of the Gene Wilder top-billed film. What a shame enterprising Charlie couldn’t be the center of a more enticing bucket list.

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