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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Marjorie Prime and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Lucas Moran
Photo by Alexxis Grant, Timeless Present Photos
Based on the beloved children's novel of the same name, the stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may slightly lack the inspired creativeness of the cherished 1971 film adaptation that starred Gene Wilder, and there are a few added songs that are just average, but it still has many moments of warmth and charm along with a fun, wicked sense of humor. With wonderful performances by Jamie Parnell as Wonka and Lucas Moran as Charlie, along with rich and imaginative creative elements that include eye-popping projections, Arizona Broadway Theatre's Arizona premiere production is a crowd-pleaser that will make you laugh and maybe shed a tear or two.

For the Broadway stage version, there are some deviations in the story from the original book, previous film adaptations, and even the original London production of this musical. However, the main plot and characters remain largely the same. The story revolves around Charlie Bucket, a kind-hearted and imaginative boy living in poverty with his mother and four grandparents. When the secretive Willy Wonka announces a contest granting five lucky winners a tour of his chocolate factory, Charlie is determined to find one of the elusive golden tickets hidden inside Wonka chocolate bars. The first four winners are all spoiled and self-indulgent children whose parents are equally disagreeable. Will Charlie be the one to discover the coveted fifth golden ticket?

The show's creators made some strategic choices in keeping the majority of the plot the same from the novel and previous films and by incorporating many of the familiar songs from the beloved 1971 film adaptation by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Virtually all of the film's iconic songs, including "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination," are included. While the new songs by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) may not reach the same level of brilliance as their Tony-winning score for Hairspray, a few stand out, such as the heartwarming "If Your Father Were Here" and Wonka's mysterious "It Must Be Believed to Be Seen." David Greig's book, while sticking close to Dahl's original novel, also introduces some modifications, notably by expanding the role of Willy Wonka, which enhances the connection between him and Charlie, albeit somewhat at the expense of his mysterious allure. Additionally, the elimination of Charlie's father, a change the 1971 film adaptation also made, streamlines the narrative and focuses more sharply on the central characters and themes and the relationship between Charlie and Wonka. The decision to have all of the other children played by adult actors makes the horrific things that happen to them a little easier to digest than if they were played by youngsters.

At the heart of ABT's production is the endearing character of Charlie Bucket, portrayed with innocence and sincerity by Lucas Moran, who alternates in the role with A.J. Riddle. Moran is fantastic. His bright portrayal and inquisitive nature perfectly depict Charlie's journey from poverty to prosperity. Moran's realistic line deliveries are both inspiring and relatable. As Charlie discovers the wonders of the chocolate factory and learns valuable lessons about kindness, generosity, and the true meaning of family along the way, Moran's depiction is authentic and believable. Charlie is on stage for the majority of the show and Moran's performance is never cloying or unnatural and, even though he's only 10 years old, he holds his own against the rest of the cast, who are all adults. His singing voice shines on his many solos. After seeing Moran last year as Tobias in Sweeney Todd, where he was also excellent, and now seeing his expert portrayal here as Charlie, I look forward to seeing what he does next.

The role of Willy Wonka, the eccentric and secretive chocolatier, is brought to life with charismatic flair by Jamie Parnell. As Wonka guides his guests and the audience through the fantastical world of his factory, inviting them to join him on a magical adventure filled with surprises and delights, Parnell's perfectly whimsical charm and the constant, mischievous twinkle in his eye make the character entirely lovable, playful, and mischievous. Parnell has appeared in over a dozen ABT shows and he is always wonderful. His strong singing voice is glorious to hear and his sustained high notes on his many songs soar. Parnell has a wonderful connection with Moran, which makes their relationship authentic and adds to the charm and realism of the show. Their final scene together is perfectly played.

In the supporting cast, James Rio is lovable and, appropriately, a bit crotchety as Charlie's Uncle Joe, and Hannah Bentley is bright with a warm singing voice as Charlie's mother. The rest of the ensemble cast are all very good in playing the bratty, self-centered other winners, their parents, a pair of broadcasters, and Wonka's workers, the fun-loving Oompa Loompas.

Director Anthony C. Daniel keeps the pace moving along at a fairly fast clip while also ensuring the jokes get big laughs and the serious moments resonate. The creative elements beautifully bring to life the magical world of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with wacky sets by Douglas Clarke, colorful costumes by Ryan Park and Kurtis Overby, immersive lighting by Pamela Kupper, and dazzling, moving, three dimensional projections by Brian C. Staton. The whimsical props by Jess Lyon and Rob Watson, Tom Holberg's sound design which features some very funny sound effects, and Chris Zizzo's wacky wigs all combine to capture the imagination of Dahl's story with vibrant colors and playful details. Basil Twist's puppet designs, which are from the recent tour and based on his original Broadway creations, feature a very fun way to bring the small Oompa Loompas to life on stage. Choreographer Kurtis Overby provides plenty of high-energy dance moves, including some spirted ones for the Oompa Loompas. Mark 4Man's music direction derives bright, strong vocals from the entire cast.

While it may not make fans forget the 1971 film adaptation, the stage version of Roald Dahl's beloved tale is nostalgic fun that brings to life the timeless themes of kindness, imagination, and the pursuit of dreams. With two exceptional leads, a wonderful cast, and gorgeous creative aspects, Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production makes for an enchanting and entertaining theatrical experience.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs through April 14, 2024, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 623-776-8400.

Director: Anthony C. Daniel
Choreography: Kurtis Overby
Music Direction: Mark 4Man
Scenic Design: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Design: Pamela Kupper
Costume Design: Ryan Park
Additional Costume Design: Kurtis Overby
Original Puppet Design: Basil Twist
Sound Design: Tom Holberg
Wig Design/Coordination: Chris Zizzo
Props Design: Jess Lyon, Rob Watson
Media Design: Brian C. Staton
Stage Management: Nico Rossetti
Artistic Director: Kurtis W. Overby
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Willy Wonka: Jamie Parnell
Charlie Bucket: Lucas Moran and A.J. Riddle
Grandpa Joe: James Rio
Mrs. Bucket: Hannah Bentley
Mrs. Gloop: Kat Gold
Augustus Gloop: Brendan Nelson Finn
Mr. Salt: Kyle Blair
Veruca Salt: Hannah McGrath
Mr. Beauregarde: Antony Terrell
Violet Beauregarde: Deijah Faulkner
Mike Teavee: Stephen Ropski
Mrs. Teavee: Katie Snyder
Grandma Josephine: Erin Burtchaell
Grandma Georgina: Josey Terry
Grandpa George: Tyler Gallaher
Mrs. Green: Kiana Douglas
Jerry: Collin O'Neill
Cherry: Alyssa Armstrong
Ensemble: Christopher Andrew, Charlie Hall, Mariel Harris, Nathan Moreno. Henrique Sobrinho