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A CurtainUp Review
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Welcome to The Imagining room.— Willie Wonka

It's completely empty.— Grandpa Joe Exactly. Empty as a blank sheet of paper. This is where I come to imagine. Every night, I come up here to look out over the town and wait...and then when an idea arrives, I open my notebook and draw.— Willy Wonka
Charlie and...
The cast (photo: Joan Marcus)
Indulged by his doting mother, an overweight boy with a severe eating disorder from Bavaria gets more than a bellyful falling into a lake of chocolate syrup. Getting everything she asks for from her very rich father, a spoiled young ballerina from Russia is torn limb from limb by squirrels. Egregiously exploited by her father, a young girl with questionable talent literally explodes after turning into a huge blueberry. Obsessed with TV and mobile gadgets, an obnoxious boy spirals out of control and gets his just rewards, as does his mother.

Oh, yes there is that one nice young boy named Charlie Bucket who is not a brat but for whom a visit to Willie Wonka's chocolate factory may change his impoverished life for the better. How's that for wholesome family entertainment?

Throughout the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre squeals of delight are heard with deafening regularity from the children watching the above fates of those four rotten kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Their grownup escorts may be seen either cringing or, more likely, giving in to darkly fantastical/allegorical world of Roald Dahl set before them.

The exceptionally talented Tony Award-winner Christian Borle (Something Rotten' ) plays Willie Wonka with exhilarating ferocity. Abetted by a compellingly motivated company, he is applying as much icing as he can on a character who is as deviously sinister as he is outwardly sweet.

Some transfers from film or book to stage work and some don't. Not so sure this time. Fortunately and with a lot of time to give Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a slightly different perspective for American audiences, Broadway has received a largely re-envisioned version of the one in London which the collaborators felt was too bloated and the tweaking of Dahl's popular 1964 children's story, it remains as inescapably loony as it is also perversely endearing.

Pure Imagination, as the show's most beautiful song tells us , must be applied to scenic designer Mark Thompson's modernist settings. Also serving as the show's costume designer, Thompson dresses the cast with witty winks at fashion, especially the snazzy formal tails for Borle.

What has presumably remained intact is the serviceable, if not quite funny enough, book by playwright David Greig and the sprightly original score by Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (Scott Wittman and Shaiman). Fans of the 1971 film will be pleased to know that two adored songs "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination" (beautifully sung by Borle) written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are also now nicely and effectively integrated into the show.

I have to admit that my only previous encounter with that chocolate-manufacturing nutcase Willie Wonka was not through the book but only a week ago when the opportunity arose to see the 2005 film version starring Johnny Depp when it was shown on TV. I never saw (my bad) the 1971 film version with Gene Wilder which has perhaps won the greatest share of devoted fans.

Fans of the musical version of Dahl's Matilda will undoubtedly be lured by the possibilities of this show. Once lured, they will either be enchanted, or perhaps even stunned, if they are able to identify or relate to the kind of skewed mischievousness and malevolence that lurks in the underbelly of the tale.

So what do I really make of this reworking of Dahl's psychologically murky fable as filtered through a funtastical lens. I allowed myself to respond to the outrageous giddiness of the performing as well as the outright grimness of its theme: we get what we deserve.

Jack O'Brien, who has taken over the reins from the show's London director Sam Mendes, has taken a bold leap in creative judgment by focusing interest more on the journey of the story's most sympathetic character and less on special effects and gimmicks. That's not to say that there aren't visual treats. Among them are the long-awaited (not until Act II) appearance of the Oompa Loompas, an indentured tribe of pygmies that do all the grunt work in the factory. Ingeniously created by puppet designer Basil Twist, they are a composite of performers' real heads and puppet bodies. They steal the show with their cavorting and ensemble dancing.

Choreographer Joshua Bergasse keeps the company hopping. He even gives a comical nod to Bavarian slap dancing.

Uncompromised and undemanding, the somewhat repetitious plot deals with Charlie's rather bizarre experience with the four other children in the chocolate factory after he finds one of the five golden tickets hidden in chocolate bars that have been distributed around the world. This is his entry to the mysterious chocolate factory wherein lives and works eccentric inventor and reclusive chocolatier

At the performance I saw Ryan Foust was terrific as awed Charlie whose love for his family is nicely integrated into the story. His relationships with his hard-working mother (warmly portrayed by Emily Padget) and attentive grandfather (a splendid John Rubenstein) is a winning part of the plot, as are his affectionate connections with his other bed-ridden grandparents who live in a cartoon-like world of semi-squalor. Subsisting with them on cabbage soup, oodles of optimism, and a collective love of chocolate, Charlie sees his prospects renewed when his grandfather join the other lucky children, each with a parent in tow. Unlike the London production, the four kids are now played by adults and are, as expected, revoltingly funny.

There's plenty here to amuse fans: Trista Dollison's Violet Beauregard belts out an over-the-top "Queen of Pop". . . F. Michael Haynie's glutinous Augustus Gloop, packs away a life-time supply of sausage links. . .Emma Pfaeffle's Veruca Salt mangles her Russian accent and her pirouettes. . . Mike Wartella's Mike Teavee remains unintelligible as TV nut Mike Teavee. Comic actress Jackie Hoffman is unfortunately saddled with poor jokes as his mother.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not be a golden ticket winner in the musical theater sweepstakes but it does win on its own terms by tickling our imagination.

Musical Numbers
Act One
The Candy Man (music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) / Willy Wonka and Ensemble
  • Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka! /Charlie Bucket and Ensemble
  • The Candy Man (Reprise) (music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) / Charlie Bucket
  • Tales of Wonka Grandpa Joe
  • A Letter From Charlie Bucket /Charlie Bucket, Mrs. Bucket and Grandparents
  • More of Him to Love /Augustus Gloop, Mrs. Gloop and Ensemble
  • When Veruca Says /Mr. Salt and Veruca Salt
  • Queen of Pop / Violet Beauregarde, Mr. Beauregarde and Ensemble
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong? /Mike Teavee, Mrs. Teavee and Ensemble
  • If Your Father Were Here /Mrs. Bucket
  • I've Got a Golden Ticket (music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) / Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe, Mrs. Bucket and Grandparents
  • Grandpa Joe /Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe, Mrs. Bucket and Grandparents
  • It Must Be Believed to Be Seen / Willy Wonka and Company
  • Act Two
    • Strike That, Reverse It /Willy Wonka and Golden Ticket Winners
    • Pure Imagination (music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) /Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe and Golden Ticket Winners
    • Grandpa Joe (Reprise)/ Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe and Golden Ticket Winners
    • The Oompa Loompa Song (music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) / Oompa Loompas
    • Auf Wiedersehen /Augustus Gloop Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompas
    • When Willy Met Oompa /Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompas
    • Veruca's Nutcracker Sweet / Veruca Salt and Oompa Loompas Vidiots Willy Wonka, Mike Teavee, Mrs. Teavee and Oompa Loompas
    • The View From Here / Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket
    • Strike That, Reverse It (Charlie's Reprise) Charlie Bucket and Company

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    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    Musical based Roald Dahl's best-selling novel
    Music by Marc Shaiman
    Book by David Greig
    Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaim
    Additional songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley from the 1971 Warner Bros. motion picture. Directed by Jack O'Brien
    Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Cast: Christian Borle (Willy Wonka), John Rubinstein as Grandpa Joe, Emily Padgett as Mrs. Bucket, Kathy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Gloop, F. Michael Haynie as Augustus Gloop, Ben Crawford as Mr. Salt, Emma Pfaeffle as Veruca Salt, Alan H. Green as Mr. Beauregard, Trista Dollison as Violet Beauregard, Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teavee, Michael Wartella as Mike Teavee and introducing Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell making their Broadway debuts as Charlie Bucket.

    Choreography by Peter Darling
    Design: Mark Thompson
    Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
    Video and Projection Design: Jon Driscoll
    Sound: Paul Arditti
    Lighting: Paul Pyant
    Puppet and Illusion Design: Jamie Harrison
    Musical Director: Nicholas Skilbeck
    Production stage manager: Michael J. Passaro
    Runnng Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes wth inermission
    Lunt-Fontanne Theatre 205 West 46th Street
    From 3/28/17;opening 4/23/17.
    Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at April 20th press preview

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