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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of My Ántonia and What Guys Really Want


Rueby Wood
Photo by Joan Marcus
If you like your candy extra sweet, your bells and whistles sounding off at a shrill pitch, and your lights blinking and twinkling at the speed of, well, light, then the stage musical version of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now on stage at the Orpheum Theater, is just the ticket for you. Make that a "golden ticket."

Dahl's book was published in 1964 and has been popular among young readers ever since. It appears on numerous lists of the 100 greatest works of children's literature, and has been seen by vast audiences in two film adaptations, a 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder as the enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka and another in 2005 with Johnny Depp as Wonka. In 2013 it came to life as a stage musical, premiering in London, breaking box office records. Its Broadway run, opening spring 2017, was less successful, sputtering out after eight months. Nevertheless, the beloved title is bound to draw large crowds as it tours the nation, as it did at opening night on the Orpheum.

Willy Wonka, tiring of his life as the world's greatest candy-maker, secluded in his enormous factory to keep spies from stealing his recipes, decides to break out of self-imposed prison and hold a contest to beat all contests: of the zillions of Wonka chocolate bars sold all around the world, five will contain a golden ticket. The finders of those five golden tickets will be given a tour of the candy factory led by Mr. Wonka himself. Among those, one lucky winner will receive an extraordinary grand prize.

Charlie Bucket is a pure-hearted lad, living with his mother, who does laundry to support her family, and his four grandparents, who sleep together in—and never leave—the only bed in their tiny home. Charlie loves chocolate more than anything and dreams of winning the contest but has to be content with one candy bar each year, a special treat on his birthday. We know, of course, that in spite of his slim chances, Charlie is destined to find one of the five golden tickets. He chooses his feisty Grandpa Joe, a lovable teller of tall tales (such as the time he worked as a travel agent and booked a western journey for a Mr. Lewis and a Mr. Clark), as his adult companion on his tour of the Willy Wonka factory.

The tale has appealed to children and chocolate lovers of all ages in its adoration of candy, with a bounty of imaginative variations on the themes of sweet and gooey. Willy Wonka is a mysterious and magical figure who creates marvelous and delightful things, yet appears not to be trustworthy. A peculiar race of miniature humans, the Oompa-Loompas, cheerily work in his factory, never seeing the world outside. One might view them as being kept as slaves, but Wonka assures us that they are grateful for his largesse, which they confirm in song and dance.

A quartet of horrid children, each with a particularly loathsome quality and their own musical theme, are Charlie's fellow golden ticket winners. Behold: gluttonously obese Augustus Gloop, excruciatingly demanding Veruca Salt, perpetual gum-chewer Violet Beauregard, and small-screen addict Mike Teavee. Each has an enabling parent along for good measure. When the children's bad traits—all but Charlie, who has no bad traits—get the better of them, they pay the price with devastating consequences that may induce nightmares in very young children in the audience.

The musical's book, written by David Greig, follows the narrative of the original for the most part, updated with the times; for example, Mike Teavee is now addicted not only to television but to video games. Several songs composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film, including popular tunes "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination" and the iconic "Oompa Loompa Song," are in the show. The remainder of the stage musical's score was composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). Unfortunately, none of the newer work is very memorable, though director Jack O'Brien's "more is better" approach to staging and Josh Bergasse's inventive choreography liven up most of the numbers enough for them to be enjoyed for as long as they last on stage. There is a sweet melody in "If Your Father Were Here," given a lovely performance by Amanda Rose as Charlie's mother, wistfully expressing her desire that she could give him a better life. "It Must Be Believed to Be Seen" serves well to close the first act, expressing Wonka's view on life as he welcomes the Golden Ticket holders to his beguiling world. On the other end of the scale, four songs composed as themes for each of the miscreant children are subpar, and a West Indies infused number explaining what happened "When Willy Met Oompa" is particularly ill advised.

But this production devotes its greatest energies toward creating a phantasmagoric universe on stage. With a series of frames on both sides of the stage and across the proscenium on which lights flash and projections project—constantly—and video backgrounds that change from tropical paradise to alpine dream and back again, the technology overdrive gives Charlie and the Chocolate Factory audiences so much to look at—might I say, too much to look at. With a strong story and well-crafted characters, the constant commotion feels at odds with, rather than an enhancement to, the pleasures and frights of Dahl's creation. It is telling that one of the most delightful scenes is one in which Wonka leads Charlie and the four brats, along with their adult companions, through a maze of hazards that are invisible, causing them to sense in open space when to dodge, jump, or hang tight, without benefit of flashing lights and projections. To me, that is stage magic.

The hard-working cast does its best to draw attention to the human characters on stage, in spite of all the gadgetry blinking and whirling around them. Three young actors rotate in the role of Charlie Bucket. On opening night, Rueby Wood played the part, and he is a star in the making. Wood has it all: singing with all his heart, expressing earnest emotion as an actor, nimbly dancing, and having that kind of stage presence that tells an audience "I belong here." Noah Weisberg is the tour's Willy Wonka, but on opening night understudy Benjamin Howes took on the role. Howes, who otherwise plays Grandpa George, did a fine job of conveying the ever-shifting candy maker, conniving one moment, generous another, exuberant over his confectionary creation, and no-nonsense about consequences for children who break his rules. To be honest, though, except for the fact that he produces delicious candy, there is little to like about Wonka, and Howes could do little to overcome that barrier.

James Young is a lovable Grandpa Joe, who makes the most of his big number (titled "Grandpa Joe") when he ventures boldly out of bed for the first time in forty years to accompany Charlie to the Wonka factory. As Charlie's hard-working mother, Amanda Rose sings sweetly and expresses an abundance of love for her son and the four grandparents all cramped in her home, a font of sunshine in their hard-luck lives. An octet of actors portray the four obnoxious children competing against Charlie, and their parents. All are cartoonish creations, well played to establish the reasons we should dislike them while still making us laugh. Madeline Doherty as the dipsomaniac Mrs. Teavee and Jessica Cohen as Veruca Salt, elegant en pointe in her ballet slippers but a terror when her wishes are denied, stand out. The ensemble works hard, taking on a number of smaller roles, enlivening the production numbers, and are sensational on their knees with Basil Twist's ingenious Oompa Loompa puppets cradling their faces, a delightfully silly effect, with snazzy choreography to boot.

At its heart, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the story of having faith in your dreams, and goodness triumphing over self-centeredness, defiance and greed. Charlie is the real hero, and Willy Wonka himself knows it. Roald Dahl wrapped it up in comical characters and grotesque plot twists, but kept the story on track toward its inevitable end. The musical version seems to have little confidence in that being enough, and has over-burned the tale with scenic and sound effects, which are impressively executed but strain the sweetness out of the story, leaving a high energy stage show with little flavor.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, through March 17, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $135.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.charlieonbroadway.com.

Book: David Greig, based on the novel by Roald Dahl; Music and Lyrics: Music: Marc Shaiman; Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; Music from the motion picture: Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; Director: Jack O'Brien; Choreography: Joshua Bergasse; Orchestrations: Doug Besterman; Music Arrangements: Marc Shaiman; Additional Orchestrations: Michael Starobin; Musical Director and Conductor: Charlie Alterman; Scenic and Costume Design: Mark Thompson; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Sound Design: Adam Keister; Projection Design: Jeff Sugg; Puppet and Illusion Design: Basil Twist; Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: Campbell Young Associates; Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson; Music Supervisor: Nicholas Skilbeck; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Casting: Telsey + Company and Rachel Hoffman, C.S.A; Production Stage Manager: Andrew Bacigalupo; Stage Manager: Alan d. Knight; Associate Director: Matt Lentz; Associate Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Associate Scenic Design: Luke Smith; Associate Costume Design: Rory Powers; Associate Lighting Design: Craig Steizenmuller; Associate Sound Design: Brian Hsieh; Associate Projection Design: Simon Harding; Additional Illusions (Jamie Harrison).

Cast: Henry Boshart* (Charlie Bucket)Sarah Bowden (Cherry/ensemble), Colin Bradbury (ensemble), Jessica Cohen (Veruca Salt), Elijah Dillehay (ensemble), Madeline Doherty (Mrs. Teavee), Alex Dreschke (ensemble), Kathy Fitzgerald (Mrs. Gloop), Jess Fry (ensemble), David R. Gordon (ensemble), Chavon Hampton (ensemble), Benjamin Howes (Grandpa George/ensemble), Colin Jeffery* (Charlie Bucket), Lily Kaufmann (ensemble), David Paul Kidder (ensemble), Jennifer Jill Malenke (Grandma Josephine/ensemble), Joe Moeller (Mr. Salt), Tanisha Moore (ensemble), Caylie Rose Newcom (ensemble), Claire Neumann (Grandma Georgina/ensemble), Joel Newsome (Jerry/ensemble), Daniel Quadrino (Mike Teavee), Amanda Rose (Mrs. Bucket), David Samuel (Mr. Beauregarde), Clyde Voce (Mrs. Green/ensemble), Brynn Williams (Violet Beauregarde), Matt Wood (Augustus Gloop), Rueby Wood* (Charlie Bucket), Borris York (ensemble). James Young (Grandpa Joe). * Alternating performances


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