Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Whatever changes were wrought in the recipe for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in its trip across the Atlantic, it remains a family-sized, mouth-watering mélange of eccentric perversity and tender-hearted pleasure.
When the show premiered in London in 2013, Musical Theatre Review adjudged this adaptation of Dahl’s beloved children’s novel to be: “a spectacular musical in the old-school style that ticks all the boxes and still manages a few surprises along the way.” That assessment holds firmly for the just-opened Broadway version.
The West End mounting finished its run of nearly four years in January. For the Broadway reboot, the estimable Jack O’Brien was brought on as director, taking over from the estimable Sam Mendes. Mendes continues as a producer.
Additional songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley from the 1971 movie musical version of the Dahl story have been incorporated into the score written expressly for the stage version by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
David Greig has reworked his book, and Joshua Bergasse is the choreographer, succeeding Peter Darling. The all-important scenic and costume design continues to be the work of Mark Thompson, while New York puppet master Basil Twist has been brought into the mix.
What now transpires on the New York stage is an Act I that seems to dawdle quite a bit before getting to the crux of things: the fantastical Act II journey through Willy Wonka’s candy factory.
Still, the opening act has its virtues. Among them is the presence of one of Broadway’s most distinctively appealing leading men playing Wonka, two-time Tony Award winner Christian Borle, a deft song and dance man and a versatile actor whose roles have ranged from a tormented AIDS victim in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to a rock star William Shakespeare in Something Rotten!
His Wonka is both blithely sarcastic and genuinely loving, peculiarly playful and threateningly intense. We meet Wonka disguised as a small sweets shop owner, venturing out into the world to find his successor as the head of his once-famous candy domain.
We also spend a lot of time getting to know Charlie Bucket and his family. He’s an impoverished but all-around good kid obsessed with Wonka chocolate: his Grandpa Joe once worked at the factory.
Eventually, Bucket becomes one of the five lucky kids who acquire Golden Tickets for a tour of the Wonka factory and a chance to win the grand prize: candy for life.
At the performance attended, Bucket was played by Jake Ryan Flynn, one of three boys alternating in the role. Flynn, one of those miniature wonders who seem to be turning up more and more on Broadway’s stages, delivers a totally endearing performance of unforced charm and surprising depth.
The act also introduces us to the four other Golden Ticket holders: an obnoxious quartet played to comic effect by adult actors rather than by kids, unlike the West End production. They include Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie), a capaciously rotund sausage-devourer from Bavaria; Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), a ballerina wannabe and the spoiled daughter of a Russian oligarch; Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison), a gum-chewing, aspiring queen of pop from California; and Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella), a revoltingly know-it-all teckie from Idaho.
It’s in Act II that the dazzle quotient soars. Charlie’s competitors are disposed of in deliciously sadistic ways, and the secrets of Willy Wonka’s candy-making are revealed.
Certainly, the most wondrous are the fudge-making Oompa Loompas, the most beguiling array of big-headed tiny people since Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan sang ‘Triplets’ in the movie The Band Wagon.
Among the many other pleasures is Borle’s meaningful rendering of the show’s loveliest song, Bricusse and Newley’s ‘Pure Imagination’. Then, there’s another lump in the throat to be had as Wonka and his soon-to-be-announced successor, Charlie, travel upward in the final moments in the great glass elevator to take in Shaiman and Wittman’s ‘The View from Here’.
Notable contributions come from those portraying the equally obnoxious parents of the obnoxious Golden Ticket winners: Kathy Fitzgerald as Mrs Gloop; Ben Crawford playing Mr Salt; Alan H. Green as Mr Beauregarde, and audience fave, Jackie Hoffman as Mrs Teavee.
Emily Padgett inspires Act I sympathy as Charlie’s hard-working and loving mum, and at the performance attended, understudy Paul Slade Smith was in fine fettle as Grandpa Joe, taking over for the role’s usual assayer John Rubinstein.
The show has already felt the whips and scorns of various New York critics, who complained about a lot of stuff – mainly that expository Act I.
Judging, however, by the gleefully appreciative whoops and hollers of a recent audience, a hearty mix of both kids and adults, this Charlie may last even longer than one of Wonka’s Gobstoppers.
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