By: Sarah Downs
Growing up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the one book that was always out of the library, faithfully returning home a little more dog-eared after every ex-library adventure. Interpreting so well loved a book is only for the brave. It requires clear choices to convey Dahl’s tale of a chocolate dystopia, with its manic Oompa Loompas and colorful child-murdering, candy creations. This adaptation, with just a few blips, rises to the occasion.
The show begins a bit slowly, which is somewhat unavoidable given that they have to cover a lot of exposition in order to be free to explore Wonka world later on. Charlie Bucket (Ryan Foust) lives with his mother (a winsome Emily Padgett) and four kooky bedridden grandparents (Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty and Michael Williams, standing in for Paul Slade Smith) including Grandpa Joe (played with believable bluster by John Rubinstein) with his tattered memories of General Custer. Little Charlie lives for Willy Wonka chocolate, and every year on his birthday he is given one bar. This year, however, his mother cannot afford even one celebratory morsel. When it is announced that 5 golden tickets for a tour of the Wonka chocolate factory are randomly to be sold in 5 out of thousands of chocolate bars, Charlie crosses his fingers only to discover his annual treat is not The One. He watches as the precious slips of gold are doled out to a series of annoying brats. First to win a ticket is lederhosen-clad Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie) whose daffy smiles unnerve in that “I’m scared of clowns” way. His classic Bavarian mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) and he sing rapturously of sausages. Next we meet nut-obsessed, pint-sized terror Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), a lovely ballerina who’s got a lotta rage, and her weary father (Ben Crawford), a handsome, princely man on the edge of implosion. Along comes high-stepping Violet Beauregarde (Monette McKay, standing in for Trista Dollison) with her trio of gum chewing back-up girls and proud papa (Alan H. Green) who just knows his little girl is going to be a star. The fourth ticket winner, Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) is the original disaffected youth (you know, whatevs) whose devotion to all things techno contrasts with his mother (Jackie Hoffman, oh she of the perfect comic timing) in her 50’s housewife get-up. Charlie makes one final stab at opening the 5th lucky chocolate bar — and he is rewarded for his faith. Thus assembled the winners enter the factory, moving through from after room of color and delight. However, for some the delight is short lived as each spoiled child’s weakness draws him or her in, literally and figuratively, to the factory machinery, never to be seen again. The last child standing is Charlie.
Ryan Foust as Charlie is believably earnest and innocent without being cloying, singing in a fresh and real voice that suits his age. Veteran scene stealer extraordinaire Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teavee has some delicious moments. You await each zinger with eager anticipation. Alan H. Green brings zip and flash to his role as proud father Beauregarde, and the floppy physical comedy of Michael Wartella as Mike Teavee is great fun. An ensemble of real triple threats dances easily through Joshua Bergasse’s challenging, original choreography. And those clever Oompa Loompas designed by puppeteer Basil Twist. They are fabulous.
Act I at moments lacks vitality, as if the muted colors have at times muted the action. Act II fares better, with dazzling color and faster pace. The biggest difference, however, is that Willy Wonka is here. When Christian Borle takes the stage, it’s as if someone has plugged us all in. He plays Willy Wonka in a broad vaudevillian style, yet always with the frisson of darkness that lies below his kaleidoscopic surface. A marvel of theatricality, with a great voice and a gift for physical comedy, Borle gives an electric performance of unflagging energy.
The set by Mark Thompson is comprised of cleverly devised mobile units that flow smoothly scene to scene. The elevated bed full of grandparents is particularly ingenious. His costumes have the same almost architectural quality. With its muted colors and hollow spaces, at times the stage in Act I does sometimes feel a little barren. By contrast, inside Wonka’s factory backdrops drenched in Douglas Sirk-esque hues open up the playing space, which is lit with equal vigor by Japhy Weideman, enhanced by Jeremy Chernick’s starry special-effects and Jeff Sugg’s projections of moving fabrics and midnight skies. You feel the open space utilized to greater effect as the various chambers are delineated by changes in color and mood, into which set pieces of varying delight move around. One has to use, appropriately enough, one’s imagination to complete the picture, the bones of which might just be a few well chosen sound effects or lighting cues.
Marc Shaiman’s music is witty and fun, with cheeky topical references he and Scott Wittman must have had a great time coming up with. I would have liked maybe one song that really dug into the guts a little more. Marc Shaiman has graciously included the iconic song “Pure Imagination” in his score, even though it is not of his own composing. As beautifully orchestrated by Doug Besterman, “Pure Imagination” embodies the essence of Willy Wonka. All of the arrangements are impeccable, and played by a kicking pit orchestra led by Nicholas Skilbeck. Conversely, I did not like the inclusion of another non-Shaiman song, “Candy Man” in the score. It’s unnecessary and not all that interesting. I would prefer to hear something original like the final duet between Wonka and Charlie. It is Shaiman’s answer to “Pure Imagination,” expanding beyond the individual to a more universal wonder. With magically wrought starry visuals to match, this finale leaves a lump in your throat. It is a much more fitting ending than that final little hat tip of a few measures of “Candy Man,” which kills the mood. Worse yet, Candy Man ends up being the tune you hum as you leave the theater.
In the end, though, Jack O’Brien has directed an eccentric, entertaining and at times dazzling production of a timeless story audiences will take to heart, especially children. We are all hungry for a little space in which to dream. Without the freedom to dream one cannot chart more hopeful waters, and you can never have too much hope.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, directed by Jack O’Brien. Composer, Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Book by David Greig. Joshua Bergasse, choreography; Mark Thompson, scenic and costume design; Japhy Weideman, lighting design; Andrew Keister, sound; Jeff Sugg, projection design; Jeremy Chernick, special effects; with puppet and illusion design by Basil Twist. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman and music direction and supervision by Nicholas Skilbeck; with Christian Borle, John Rubinstein, Emily Padgett, Kathy Fitzgerald, F. Michael Haynie, Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle, Alan H. Green, Trista Dollison, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Wartella, Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust, Ryan Sell, 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, Stephen Carrasco, Robin Masella, Kristin Piro, Amy Quanbeck, Michael Williams, and Mikey Winslow.