Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

The new Broadway musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a superb delight.  The show is based on the classic Roald Dahl children’s book and the memorable movie version that starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (not the remake that featured Johnny Depp in the lead role).  The production manages, for the most part, to capture the whimsical, dream-like world of the story.  There are imaginative and creative set pieces to go along with the winning performances by the cast, primarily Jake Ryan Flynn as the ever-optimistic lad, Charlie Bucket; and Christian Borle, delivering his second first-rate musical portrayal of the current season (he appeared last fall in Falsettos) as Willy Wonka.  The rendering of the mysterious Oompa Loompas is both clever and comical.
Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Paul Slade Smith Emily Padgett, John Rubenstein and Jake Ryan Flynn.

For those not steeped in the book, the plot centers on the Bucket family, so poor they can only afford rotting, moldy vegetables for their dinner.  Mom, a widow, works unceasingly to bring in a meager income.  The two sets of grandparents, ensconced in an upstairs bedroom, have been happily bedridden for decades.  Charlie, a young boy, is close to Joe, his mother’s father, who regales him with wild tales including his time as a guard at the Wonka Chocolate factory.  A youthful connoisseur of their confectionary products, he constantly wonders about this titan of industry who disappeared behind his factory walls, severing all ties with the world, years earlier.  Then one day a proclamation is broadcast that the enigmatic Willy Wonka will open his gates to five lucky winners who find a golden ticket in one of his Wonka chocolate bars.  Naturally, Charlie is one of the fortuitous children from around the world who unearths the prized treasure.  Quickly, each child, accompanied by an adult, enters the mystical, magical environs of the Wonka Chocolate factory where surprise after surprise awaits their every step.  In the end, only one of the visitors will win the grand prize of a lifetime supply of chocolate…as well as so much more.
Christian Borle (center) and members of the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" cast.
Librettist David Greig has streamlined aspects of the original book, adding a new back story and his own spin on two of the youthful characters, giving them a very satisfying up-to-date feel. There is a lot of humor and playfulness within the narrative and, especially, with the Willy Wonka character.  However, Greig also keeps intact the underlying darkness so prevalent in the works of Roald Dahl.  In the film, when the young children behave badly they are unceremoniously, but innocently removed from the scene.  Not necessarily so in the musical version.  

The score incorporates such iconic numbers from the movie, including “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination,” and the “Oompa Loompa Song,” written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  The new numbers, penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can), are joyful, silly, and full of amusement and dynamism.  There are tender ballads and expository compositions, but they never intrude upon the daftness and farcicality of the overall score. 
Christian Borle and Jake Ryan Flynn with one of the mysterious machines from the musical.
The cast is wonderful, led by Christian Borle.  His Willy Wonka is part wise guy and part carnival huckster.  The stage comes childishly alive with his nonsensical patter and juvenile antics.  He is the circus ringleader that keeps the pacing ablaze.  Other notable performers include an undiscernible John Rubenstein as the slightly mad, a touch oft-kilter but, nonetheless, loving, doting surrogate father, Grandpa Joe.  There is still a spry step in his gait and glimmer in his eye.  Jake Ryan Flynn, as Charlie Bucket, has the fascination and innocence of a youth buoyantly confronting his rather humble situation in life.  He is endearing, confident and has an overall winning presence.  Jackie Hoffman, as Mrs. Teavee, is always a welcome sight in any production.  She possesses a well-honed, subversive presence that goes along with her very funny quips.  The actors portraying the four children—Trista Dollison (Violet Beauregarde), F. Michael Haynie (Augustus Gloop), Emma Pfaeffle (Veruca Salt), and Michael Wartella (Mike Teavee)—have well-defined, slightly over-the-top traits, which is a positive alternation to the story. 

Director Jack O’Brien has crafted a production rich in invention and cleverness.  He never lets the largeness of the show get away from him.  Even at the other end of the spectrum, when there is mere nothingness on stage, he demonstrates his creativity and resourcefulness.  This occurs, with great hilarity, as the visitors transverse an unseen gauntlet of surprises.  O’Brien gives Christian Borle plenty of room for inspired theatrics that still stay in line with the Wonkiness of his character.  His depiction and restrained usage of the enigmatic Oompa Loompas never fails to bring a smile to audience members, young and old alike.  My one major criticism is the scene where Charlie discovers his golden ticket.  It happens too quickly, not allowing the audience enough time to savor, along with the boy, in his fortunate piece of luck. 

The artistic team has produced a realm of awe and astonishment.  Mark Thompson’s sets form the foundation with a plethora of zany gadgetry that bellow, smoke, and convulse.  He has also incorporated minimally designed staging that pairs well with the more elaborate construction.  This allows for the audience’s imagination to take over.  Jeff Sugg’s hypnotizing projections, Japhy Weideman’s impactful lighting, and Andrew Keister’s off-beat and enterprising sound design complete the whole package.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the few family oriented shows playing on Broadway that adults will also find diverting and entertaining.

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