What a peculiar piece of confectionary is the new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne on Sunday night. Allegedly, the musical was significantly re-worked for Broadway audiences after its British debut, but in the current production flavors are missing and oddly combined, running the risk of pleasing neither children nor grown-ups.
This piece is a star vehicle for the mega-talented Christian Borle who does everything asked of him here and more. He plays a mercurial protagonist whose motives we are not meant to fully understand or rely on. We do, however, need to be entranced by our Pied Piper, and despite Borle’s considerable gifts, his charisma does not fully animate this Willy Wonka.
As fans of the Gene Wilder film (from which a few hit songs are retained) will know, the action concerns a reclusive candy maker, Wonka, who needs a succession plan. He launches a contest for a lucky few to win a tour of his long-shut chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of signature chocolate. (In some realm of magical thinking, this will also identify the next generation chocolate CEO.) A wave of twenty-four hour news cycle international chocolate mania follows as the search for golden tickets hidden in Wonka Bars gets underway. Five children, each accompanied by an allegedly responsible grown up, eventually claim the prize of admission to the chocolate castle.
Our pint size hero, “Charlie” of the title (an appealing Ryan Foust at the performance I attended), is being raised in Dahl’s absurdist version of Dickensian circumstances: rotten cabbage every night for dinner and a single chocolate bar each birthday. His household consists of a single mother (sweetly sung by Emily Padgett) who works ceaseless but endangered shifts as a laundress. Since this production is set in the present, she is being replaced by a washing machine — just to get our working class consciousness box checked. (Why she is given a ballad intended to console a disappointed Charlie but this is instead a lugubrious lament for his absent father — not an obvious pick-me-up for the kid — remains a mystery.) Mother and son also care for a quartet of Charlie’s grandparents, mutually bedridden for over four decades! Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein in a game and heartwarming performance) is, despite their age difference, Charlie’s kindred spirit in anecdote and adventure. We witness the interminably and almost incurably optimistic Charlie selflessly put the interests of others ahead of his own. (This is child hero as plaster saint.)
The story and book of the musical by David Greig is rigged so that other children will be the first identified golden ticket winners. These include a more than pleasingly plump yodeling boy from Bavaria, Augustus (F. Michael Haynie), a bubble gum popping LA Instagram star, Violet (Trista Dollison), a heartland screen addict aptly named Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella), and the ballet dancing offspring of a Russian oligarch called Veruca (Emma Pfaeffle) — what Veruca wants, Veruca gets — engaging and talented youngish actors all.
Along the way Charlie encounters a curmudgeonly candy store owner, newly installed in his neighborhood, and amusingly doubled by Willy Wonka himself. Teasingly refusing to give in and make a present of a Wonka Bar to our spunky hero affords Borle an opportunity for lovely and easy extended comic by-play. We don’t get too much of that in this production, which often works overtime to please. But it is no surprise that our boy Charlie eventually also earns his passport to Wonka Land.
The so-called adults that accompany their offspring, in addition to the previously mentioned Grandpa Joe, include Alan H. Green as Violet’s stage father. He is a knockout “Dadda Rose” and a wonderfully wicked mover. (Choreography is by Joshua Bergasse.) Also in very fine comic fettle is Jackie Hoffman as the alcohol and drug reliant smother mother of Mike Teavee. But in an example of the sort of misguided mismatch from which the show suffers, Hoffman’s Mrs. Teavee is greeted by Wonka in song, “Your hair, your dress, your shoes are great, you’re dressed for 1958!” Mrs. Teavee responds, “I tried those short shorts but they kept riding up.” There is something I’m not getting here.
Once admitted to the Factory, various tests ensue: Augustus is punished for his greed, Violet is censured for her obsession with fame, the screen-addicted macho troublemaker Mike is neutralized, and Veruca, the ballet-dancing spoiled brat, will never dance again (at least temporarily). Wonka is assisted on the tour by the fabled rescued miniature Oompa Loompas (“half the size, half the pay!”), ingeniously brought to theatrical life and danced to the outer limits of two-foot extension by the ensemble.
The music by Marc Shaiman, along with holdover film tunes by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, is serviceable enough without being in any way memorable. The lyrics (Scott Wittman and Shaiman) are occasionally clever but we’re not in vintage tongue-twisting rhyming patter form here. (Dahl’s use of made-up language in the original story is mint.) Lyrics to the Bricusse and Newley hit standards can now seem cloying (“Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two… who can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream” — in a sugar coma yet?) when paired with new lyrics that exhibit a certain contemporary self-consciousness (“Here in the bosom of America, we love the things that make our country strong. We give our little sons lots of love and lots of guns. So, what could possibly go wrong?”) Let us not forget a little ditty sung in multiple refrains by a large chorus about clubbing baby seals — seriously. “It’s clubbed then tickled, clubbed then tickled, clubbed then tickled pink.” There’s a nice Tarantino image for the five-year-old set!
What world are we in? Who is this show for? These strike me as the central problems with this adaptation and production. There are “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more” references intended presumably to keep adult theatergoers interested. For example, Veruca proclaims to Russian Dad at one point, “Buy me North Korea!” But the tonal handling of the surreal so essential to Dahl is neither consistent nor secure. If Charlie is meant to be the incorruptible anchor of our journey, what do we make of this exchange? Wonka to Charlie, “Do you like seeing children maimed?” To which Charlie responds, “No, but — I love seeing how chocolate is made.” It seems even Charlie has his price.
Unlike the source material of the inspired recent musical adaptation of Matilda, another Dahl classic, this story is not about the dysfunctional adult world seen in absurdist terms through the eyes of resilient and resourceful children. In “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” parents have succeeded in damaging children while rendering both culpable. In fact, children are “punished” in this dubiously moral fable for things that arguably are not their fault.
A high premium is placed on inventiveness, imagination and the virtues of unplugging from modern technology, seen in this context as inhibiting creativity and imperiling human connection. Cell phones, tablets, and Wi-Fi all are exorcised by Wonka at various points, and lyrically vilified, “Vidiots! They’re just Vidiots.” (This, along with the creaky construction of these moments, tells us something perhaps about the demographic of the creative team.)
Yet the imaginative world created on stage is one where both too much and perversely too little is shown, often in relentless though undoubtedly intentionally garish neon. Mark Thompson designed the scenery and costumes here as in London. While some design solutions are modestly successful, others feel sparse yet simultaneously obvious. Tellingly, a sequence where the tour-takers are asked by Wonka to navigate an invisible but deadly maze — relying only on the accomplished physicality of the actors to summon magic — is one of the most effective scenes in the musical. The distinguished Jack O’Brien, taking over from Sam Mendes who helmed the London version, certainly knows how to keep everyone moving along on the tour. The issue is whether or not we care enough about the outcome by the time the glass elevator breaks through the roof as expected.
In the end, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” doesn’t deliver either an endorphin-inducing chocolate high or a satisfying experience at a new Broadway musical.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Sunday, April 23, 2017.
Creative: Book by David Greig; Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; Based on the novel by Roald Dahl; Songs from the Motion Picture by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; Music orchestrated by Doug Besterman; Music arranged by Marc Shaiman; Additional Orchestrations by Michael Starobin; Musical Director: Nicholas Skilbeck; Directed by Jack O’Brien; Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; Scenic Design by Mark Thompson; Costume Design by Mark Thompson; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Andrew Keister; Video and Projection Design: Jeff Sugg; Puppetry Design: Basil Twist; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates; Makeup Design by Campbell Young Associates.
Producers: Produced by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions and Neal Street Productions; Executive Producer: Mark Kaufman, Kevin McCormick and Caro Newling.
Cast: Christian Borle, Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust, Ryan Sell, Ben Crawford, Trista Dollison, Kathy Fitzgerald, Alan H. Green, F. Michael Haynie, Jackie Hoffman, Emily Padgett, Emma Pfaeffle, John Rubinstein, Michael Wartella, Yesenia Ayala, Darius Barnes, Colin Bradbury, Jared Bradshaw, Ryan Breslin, Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Stephanie Gibson, Talya Groves, Cory Lingner, Elliott Mattox, Monette McKay, Kyle Taylor Parker, Paul Slade Smith, Katie Webber.