Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The family live in the shadow of the massive chocolate factory of Willie Wonka (Noah Weisberg), a place of mystery that Wonka closed to the outside world after spies stole his secret recipes. But Wonka, eager to find a worthy successor to the chocolate throne, decides that (rather than, say, using ZipRecruiter.com) he will place golden tickets inside five of the millions of chocolate bars that leave his factory; those who beat the intimidating odds and find the golden tickets will win a tour of the factory, and one of those five will be given a lifetime supply of Wonka brand sweets.
It's a charming story, but despite taking place in a fantasy world of confectionary, it is, like dark chocolate, only semi-sweet. For Wonka possesses a rather cruel streak in his characterat least for children who don't measure up to his standards of behavior. Even those he respects, like little Charlie, he tests and teases to make sure they are worthy.
If you are a fan of Dahl's in general, and this story in particular, prepare yourself for some rather large changes and additions, some of which work, and some of which don't.
Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen) is still a spoiled bratfor her, the magic word is not "please," but "now!"but instead of being the daughter of a wealthy British businessman, her father (Nathaniel Hackmann) is a Russian oligarch. Given the current attention being paid to dirty dealings by Russian billionaires and power players, this is an updating that works. Violet Beauregard (Brynn Williams) retains her obsession with gum, but the character is updated by making her a California-based social media star, the "Queen of Pop." Mike Teavee (a marvelously athletic Daniel Quadrino) is still hooked on video, but now has iPhones, tablets, and wireless headphones to further isolate him in a rectangular prison of media. Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood) is the closest of the four bad children to Dahl's imagining of the charactera portly Bavarian lad whose appetite is never sated. But my favorite addition is Mrs. Green (Clyde Voce), who pushes her shopping cart through the Buckets' neighborhood, selling rotting produce she cleverly brands as "vintage vegetables."
Sadly, these mostly clever inventions are undercut by changes that divert from the spirit of Dahl's originalmost notably the decision to have Wonka announce early in act one that he is seeking a successor, something that was saved as a luscious surprise at the end of the originaland by the overall bombast of the production. Although Dahl's work is often filled with fantastical elements and outrageous characters, it is also marked by subtlety, and by sharp satire that sneaks up on the reader. Here that subtlety is lost, and only the silliness and extravagance remain. After 2.5 hours, I felt a little bludgeoned by it all.
That said, there are some wonderful moments in the show. I doubt anyone can ever live up to the brilliance of Gene Wilder's portrayal of Wonka (I've never been able to stomach more than 90 seconds of Johnny Depp's attempt), but Noah Weisberg's interpretation grew on me slowly over the course of the evening. His Wonka is dismissive and chilly, but Weisberg keeps a core of warmth underneath his cold exterior, even when he is dishing out well-deserved justice to spoiled brats. And when the Oompa-Loompas (Wonka's pint-sized orange-haired factory workers) finally appear in act two, they seize the show and garner by far the biggest ovation of the evening.
If you're a fan of Dahl's, this one is a bit of a gamble. But if you just want a fun evening with the kids and don't mind the liberties bookwriter David Greig has taken with the story, go ahead and roll the dice.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, through May 12, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56 - $256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.charlieonbroadway.com/tour/.