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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2017

Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The New Musical Book by David Greig. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman. Based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Songs from the Motion Picture by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Scenic and costume design by Mark Thompson. Music direction and supervision by Nicholas Skilbeck. Original Stage Production Directed by Sam Mendes and Choreographed by Peter Darling. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Arrangements by Marc Shaiman. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Andrew Keister. Video and projection design by Jeff Sugg. Puppetry design by Basil Twist. Cast: Christian Borle, Ben Crawford, Kathy Fitzgerald, Alan H. Green, Jackie Hoffman, Trista Dollison, F. Michael Haynie, Emma Pfaeffle, Michael Wartella, with Emily Padgett and John Rubinstein, Yesenia Ayala, Darius Barnes, Colin Bradbury, Jared Bradshaw, Ryan Breslin, Stephen Carrasco, Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Palome Garcia-Lee, Stephanie Gibson, Talya Groves, Cory Lingner, Robin Masella, Elliott Mattox, Monette McKay, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kristin Piro, Amy Quanbeck, Paul Slade Smith, Katie Webber, Michael Williams, Mikey Winslow, and introducing Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust, Ryan Sell as Charlie.
Theatre: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Christian Borle
Photo by Joan Marcus

Chocolate has traditionally fallen into the category of things that are pretty good even when they're bad. (Pizza is also a famous one; there are others, but this is a family review.) Its status may have to be reconsidered, however, in light of the new musicalization of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Lunt-Fontanne. It's just bad: plain, simple, and totally. Although, to be fair, it does keep one-upping itself—this is not a musical that's willing to settle for second-worst.

The bigger accomplishment, though, is that bookwriter David Greig, songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographer Joshua Bergasse, and director Jack O'Brien managed this with what should have been a slam-dunk property. The Roald Dahl novel that provides it the germ of its story, about enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket, the poor boy who wins a tour of his factory, has been a classic since its publication in 1964, and two subsequent film versions, in 1971 (starring Gene Wilder and retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and 2005 (starring Johnny Depp), have kept it near the forefront of three generations' consciousness. Its whimsy and magic give way naturally to song (the first movie was a full-fledged musical, the second still had a few numbers), there's a rainbow of delightful characters, and a swath of colorful locales easily allow for dazzling spectacle and special effects.

This show rebukes all of that potential, as well as stamping out the material's warmth and charm. Charlie buys food for his family from a sneering lady with a grocery cart who delights in selling rotten produce. The four bedridden grandparents with whom Charlie lives are insufferable cartoons—yes, the beloved Grandpa Joe, too, whose entire character derives from telling moronic, easily disprovable lies (most about events in the 19th century, for whatever reason). The other winners of Wonka's lottery are vicious, one-dimensional avatars of mind- and behind-numbing chaos. The Oompa Loompas, who labor in Wonka's factory, are screechy puppet midgets (designed by Basil Twist) who may as well be auditioning for a community theatre A Chorus Line. (One stage direction in the script reads, so help me, "Oompa Loompa tap break!", exclamation point included.)

Jake Ryan Flynn and Christian Borle
Photo by Joan Marcus

Worse is that Wonka, who has always been gleeful and effusive if not tolerating of bad behavior, is now openly sadistic. After setting up a candy kiosk at the end of Charlie's street and masquerading as its proprietor, he repeatedly pretends to give him bars for free, yanking them away at the last second. He further tortures Charlie by forcing him to watch TV news reports about other kids from around the world finding the golden tickets Wonka has hidden in his chocolate bars (to grant admission to the factory tour), and taunting Charlie about not being able to afford one himself. When the tour finally starts, Wonka hits one child with a hammer and sets the five on obstacle courses where, among other things, they get beaned in the crotch or smashed in the face with frying pans. This doesn't make Wonka funny. It makes him cruel. And cruel is hard to root for.

That could also explain the treatment of the other kids, though it doesn't excuse it. They're supposed to illustrate the dangers of excess: Augustus Gloop overeats, Violet Beauregarde does nothing but chew gum, Veruca Salt throws tantrums to get what she wants, Mike Teavee watches television endlessly. Where those distinctions have not been obliterated here, they have been exploded. Augustus is a robotic pig with a Super Glue-d plastic smile. Violet still chews gum, but is more renowned for her Instagram feed. Veruca is a ballet dancer. Mike is obsessed with basically every kind of technology (he wins the contest by hacking Wonka's computer) except TV, though his real crime is presented as being born to a family in Idaho. Each is introduced in a bizarre, overextended song exploiting the stereotypes they represent: Augustus's is a German style bier hop, Violet's is hip-hop, Veruca's is ballet, Mike's is... lord, who knows—political quasi-techno? No matter: Bergasse's spastic, genre-straddling choreography and Andrew Keister's muddy, ear-torturing sound design ensure they make no impression.

More offensive still may be these children's fates. (I'm going to spoil them, if that sort of thing concerns you.) August, Violet, and Veruca die, the first boiled into fudge, the second popping after becoming a giant blueberry due to malfunctioning gum, the last literally ripped apart (in full view, no less) after entering a room filled with rabid, nut-opening squirrels. Mike only (only?) stays miniaturized forever, to the joy of his emasculating mother. Dahl sent each of them home, returned (more or less) to normal—bruised and battered, but wiser. The purveyors of this musical are willing to kill children onstage in a children's musical just to conjure cheap thrills.

All of this reeks of desperation and, let's face it, just reeks. Updating the story for today isn't a bad idea, but this treatment isn't good for anyone at (or in) any age—it's brain-dead, heartless, and cynical, not appropriate for families or anyone else. As for Shaiman and Wittman's score, it's shallow and tacky, by leagues the pair's weakest work for Broadway (they should stick with the safe 1960s pap-pastiche they forwarded in Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, and Bombshell, the musical from the TV series Smash). Neither the orchestrations (bland, by Doug Besterman) nor the musical direction (energetic, by Nicholas Skilbeck) can make them memorable, either. Thank goodness for the three Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley songs (plus the Oompa Loompa anthem tune) pulled in from the 1971 movie, which are jaunty, melodic, and delightful. (Only one, "Pure Imagination," was in the London version of the show when it opened in 2013; it's impossible to imagine this one without them.)

Mark Thompson's sets and costumes somehow look at once expensive and cheap. In the first act, Charlie's house looks a tenement as conceived for Disneyland, the exterior of Wonka's factory a coloring-book blueprint from a drunk Cubist. Act II shows that every room in the factory has glowing blue walls and, occasionally, a glowing red doorway; none of it projects any of the book's or films' electrifying wonderment. The entirely edible Chocolate Room, which should make both your eyes and taste buds water, is a tiny, Plexiglas-framed diorama that all the actors can't even fit onto; it's so cramped and poorly designed that you can't even see the chocolate lagoon (spoilers again) when Augustus falls into it. Japhy Weideman's lights strike the right basic tone, though most of the time they could stand to be turned up a little.

John Rubinstein, Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle,
Jake Ryan Flynn, Christian Borle, Trista Dollison,
Alan H. Green, Jackie Hoffman, and Michael Wartella
Photo by Joan Marcus

O'Brien's staging is a theatrical shrug throughout; it's never more indifferent than here, but it's rarely better. ("Imagination? What's that?" Mike asks, leading into the scene. I often asked myself that, too.) He has, however, helped two of his actors to noteworthy performances. Despite fighting an absurd costume, Emily Padgett crafts a nice portrait of understated sensitivity as Charlie's mother; and Jackie Hoffman's barking delivery of Mike's mom's campy protestations comprise the show's only genuine laughs. Christian Borle ought to be perfect as Wonka, given how good he is at melding sincerity and capriciousness, but this Wonka is written as too irredeemably vile for him (or, I suspect, anyone) to redeem. I have seen John Rubinstein give detailed, thoughtful, emotionally intricate performances in the past, but his lobotomized-Bernie Sanders take on Grandpa Joe is an embarrassing miscalculation from start to finish. Of the three young actors who share the role of Charlie, the one I saw, Jake Ryan Flynn, was technically sufficient, but overly cute to the point of grating and only a so-so singer.

At least he's an actual child. In the dumbest of this production's many dumb choices, the other kids are all played by grown-up actors. F. Michael Haynie (Augustus), Trista Dollison (Violet), Emma Pfaeffle (Veruca), and Michael Wartella (Mike) are presumably just following orders, so I won't dwell on their awful performances, which would be unacceptable coming from 3-year-olds. But I will say that the presence of additional adults could have made a greater impact behind the scenes, where they might have prevented this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from becoming a massive, melty mess.


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