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A CurtainUp Review
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
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.
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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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