Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Guys and Dolls
Based on the children's novel by Roald Dahl, the musical focuses on a contest held by mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka. Children from around the world seek one of five golden tickets hidden inside the wrappers of his candy bars. No one wants to find a golden ticket more than local lad Charlie Bucket, who is excited that the winner gets to tour the Wonka Chocolate Factory. Charlie and his family are very poor, but he still manages to get a golden ticket. He and the other winners meet the wildly eccentric Mr. Wonka and tour the factory, for better or (mostly) for worse for the kids. This musical adaptation originated in London in 2013 and premiered on Broadway (in a reworked version) in 2017. The tour is closely (but not exactly) based on the Broadway production, which only lasted nine months after receiving negative reviews.
One of the primary liabilities of the show is the book by David Greig. It's episodic and choppy, and several of the jokes are groaners (though much of the humor does work well). Even harder to swallow are a number of dark takes on certain scenesprimarily that the fate of most of the children, following their misbehavior at the factory, is quite grim. (Veruca Salt is torn limb by limb by squirrels!) At other times, there are some touching moments, and the oddball characters do call for a somewhat twisted look at situations, but parents should at least beware that this is not the gentle Gene Wilder film take on the story. One mitigating factor to the fate of the children is that all of them, with the exception of Charlie Bucket, are portrayed by adults. Additionally, there's a song mostly about "self-medication" that isn't very kid-friendly either, though adults will find it quite humorous.
The score is by the writers of Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics). If their score for Charlie is not quite as strong as those for their previous shows, there are still a number of gems to be heard. "When Veruca Says" and "The Queen of Pop" are extremely catchy melodies, and "If Your Father Were Here," a poignant song for Charlie's mom, is a lovely ballad with expressive lyrics. The act one closer, "It Must Be Believed to Be Seen" is an excellent synopsis of the theme of imagination so prevalent throughout the show, and musically captures the somewhat enigmatic tone of the chocolate maker. Also included are four songs from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, "The Candy Man," "I've Got a Golden Ticket," "The Oompa Loompa Song," and "Pure Imagination" complement the new score well.
Helming the tour is director Jack O'Brien, who brings polish and some unique staging ideas to the proceedings. The part-puppet, part-actor rendering of the Oompa Loompas is smile-inducing, and there are several other moments that work very well, including the miniaturized version of Mike Teavee. The show does lag at times, though, especially in the second act, and the uneven approach to the material (tender kids show or dark, subversive commentary) should have been clarified better under his watch. The choreography by Joshua Bergasse is superb and quite varied, and Charlie Alterman leads a swell sounding orchestra of both touring and local musicians.
The role of Charlie is alternated among Henry Boshart, Rueby Wood, and Collin Jeffrey, with Mr. Boshart playing the leading character on press night. He possesses a lovely singing voice and the stage presence of a seasoned pro. Speaking of seasoned pros, James Young brings a Dick Van Dyke persona to his take on Grandpa Joe and is a delight throughout. As Willy Wonka, Noah Weisberg starts out a bit too "showy," but sings very well and skillfully embodies the off-kilter and varied personality of the character. Amanda Rose is an accomplished singer and brings the necessary warmth and tenderness to the role of Charlie's mom. All of the supporting performers and ensemble members display significant talent, with especially praiseworthy turns by Kathy Fitzgerald (Mrs. Gloop), Jessica Cohen (Veruca), and Brynn Williams (Violet).
Mark Thompson's costumes are splendid, but his set designs are hit and miss. There are some gorgeous modular pieces, such as the grandparents' bed and the corner chocolate store in act one. But, after intermission, when the action is inside the Wonka factory, locales that should be true eye-candy for the audience are lackluster. Projection/digital displays shown on the cascading proscenium arches that frame the action help somewhat, but too much is left to the imagination of the audience (which may be the point) and are a letdown. The lighting by Japhy Weideman is apt and diverse.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn't a bad showit just could have been better. Adults attending should enjoy themselves very much, but parents of smaller children might want to read up a bit more on what to expect and explain that what they will be seeing is just fantasy.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, through November 4, 2018, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. Tickets can be purchased by calling 800-294-1816, or visit www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, visit www.charlieonbroadway.com/tour/.