navigation buttons

Saturday, March 30, 2019

F3Stage Review: Purely misguided imagination robs Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of all magic

Film Flam Flummox

If there were a literary property just about ready-made for stage musical treatment, it's Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A perennial favorite for young and old alike since its publication, its whimsical comic fantasy and relatable, rootable underdog story would alone offer ample ingredients for an effectively escapist entertainment. That's not even counting that a proven musical template is already long set, in the form of Mel Smith's beloved 1971 feature film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But not for nothing did a seemingly surefire success become one of the biggest disasters of the 2017 Broadway season, for somehow, some way director Jack O'Brien and his team manage to completely drain all the magic from this tale--which makes this monstrosity, now running at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, a true feat of pure imagination in the absolutely worst way.

From what I can tell, that wasn't always the case with this show, which premiered in London's West End in 2013 under the direction of Sam Mendes. While receiving mixed reviews, one unanimous point of praise was the appropriately elaborate scenic design. Creative overhauls and director changes made in the transfer over the Atlantic are hardly uncommon for productions that are believed to have underachieved in their original form, but O'Brien's biggest apparent "fix" once brought on board was to run in the completely opposite direction visually, scaling back the production to the point of minimalism. If a bit disappointing from the initial curtain raise, such a direction makes at least some kind of dramatic sense in act one, with scenic designer Mark Thompson's (who also, improbably, designed the Mendes version) rather spartan set pieces--a house, a candy store--reflecting the drab everyday of poor, young Charlie Bucket (Rueby Wood on opening night; he alternates with Henry Boshart and Collin Jeffery), who spends his days in the crowded home he shares with his widowed mom and all four of his grandparents dreaming up inventions and hoping to win a golden ticket to visit renowned candy maker Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. In a departure from the different adaptations of Dahl's story, Wonka (Noah Weisberg, trying to lend the proceedings some energy) has a literal presence outside of the factory here, in disguise as the owner of the candy shop that Charlie frequents. This adjustment, nor some half-hearted (not to mention incongruous, given all the nods, primarily in the very cheap prices, to this being set way in the past) attempts to "modernize" the tale by throwing in pandering references to social media and computer hacking, has no discernible narrative impact on the slog that is act one, which librettist David Greig structures as a repetitive series of news reports/song numbers that introduce the winners of the Golden Ticket contest one by one: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), spoiled Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen, a talented ballet dancer), gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), and the aptly named Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino). The routine rhythm would be somewhat forgiven by a memorable score, but the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are far from their Hairspray glory days here, serving up a slate of sleepwalking songs whose utterly forgettable melodies and lyrics are underscored by the show's inclusion of a few of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's evergreen compositions from Willy Wonka, such as the emblematic "Pure Imagination" and the Sammy Davis Jr. standard "The Candy Man." (One can't help but feel that, given the production involvement of film rights holders Warner Bros., the show would've been better off as a top-to-bottom adaptation of Willy Wonka; perhaps that would've been less--yes--imaginative, but it probably would've at least been more enjoyable.)

Once (spoiler alert, but not really, given the title) Charlie himself wins the final golden ticket and the long-awaited tour of the chocolate factory finally begins after intermission, one hopes the production finally comes to life in act two. Alas, the show only becomes more baffling. While Wonka's troupe of minions, the Oompa Loompas, are admittedly brought to diminutive life in a clever way, the benefit of the doubt given to Thompson's otherwise restrained design in the first act is rescinded, for instead of upping the spectacle and selling the magic of Wonka, the stage becomes even more bare, with whatever physical sets being more cheap (it's hard to muster up the same enthusiasm, much less awe, as the characters when seeing the high school drama level manifestation of the Chocolate Room, never mind its iconic chocolate waterfall), and often the backdrop being literally blank, without even the most simplest of images projected onto it. When the stultifying simplicity reaches its most insulting nadir when the contest winners and their companions are forced to navigate an invisible maze for one overlong scene, it's difficult to not think that O'Brien's entire angle for this assignment is as a dare to make audiences exercise their own imaginations to the breaking point.

That's actually a more charitable conclusion, for he and Greig ultimately feel like they're outright trolling the audience, in particular the families to which this is being sold. Dahl's work has always had a dark edge that flirted with the macabre, but he never got as outright morbid and downright mean as O'Brien and Greig do here. The factory-set portion of the story is characterized by how Charlie's fellow winners are comically done in by their vices, but it's hard for anyone, much less kids, to get a laugh when a horrified parent has their child's innards splattered all over him or, even more shockingly, another child is literally torn to pieces on stage--which prompted a clearly disturbed cry by a young patron seated behind me on opening night. Pure imagination, yes, but also pure nightmare fuel in a most bitter tasting piece of Chocolate.

The First National Tour cast of
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in a limited engagement through Sunday, April 14; the First National Tour then continues on to other cities throughout the year, including a return to Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Tuesday, May 28 through Sunday, June 9.

Buy the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Original London Cast album MP3 here.
Buy the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Blu-ray here.
Buy the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory DVD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

The Movie Report wants to attend and cover all your live stage productions! Please send any and all invitations to this address. Thanks!

Instagram: @twotrey23

Twitter: @twotrey23