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Theatre in Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Lunt-Fontanne)

Christian Borle. Photo: Joan Marcus

Given the chilly reception afforded Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last week, I feel duty bound to point out that, if it is hardly the best musical on Broadway, it is surely the most improved. In the West End, where it opened in 2013, it was a leaden, laugh-free affair, with an overbearing production design and a bafflingly conceived leading role. After going through one of the most complete overhauls I have ever seen, it is much funnier and lighter on its feet, and also marked by a greater simplicity of design. If certain oddities remain, it's likely that the kids -- the target audience -- won't care.

As anyone raised on Roald Dahl's novel or the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory knows, this is the peculiar story of the weird, reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka, who announces a contest that sets the world on its ear: Five lucky boys and girls who find a golden ticket in their Wonka chocolate bar are to be given a tour of his mysterious, wondrous factory. The winners, with one exception, constitute a true Dahlian gallery of grotesques, updated for the twenty-first century: Violet Beauregarde is an internet sensation -- and tiny diva-in-training -- best-known for her ability to chew a single piece of gum for record-breaking lengths of time; Augustus Gloop is a morbidly obese Teuton, never without a string of sausages to munch on; Veruca Salt is a viciously competitive ballerina with a Russian oligarch father who sheepishly does her bidding; and Mike Teavee is permanently hooked up to every form of digital entertainment and social media. Watching this parade of little monsters, each defined by a single trait -- gluttony, vanity, etc. -- one begins to realize that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an old-fashioned -- if cockeyed -- morality play.

The one exception to this malevolent Romper Room is Charlie Bucket, a fatherless boy who lives in abject poverty with his mother and four grandparents; the latter are seemingly confined to a single bed while Mrs. Bucket works herself to the bone to keep them all from starving. Emily Padgett, an attractive, talented young lady who can't seem to catch a break -- she previously appeared in Bright Star and the revival of Side Show -- here handles one of the season's most thankless roles; she does very nicely by the ballad "If Your Father Were Here" before disappearing, just as the show is starting to become amusing.

Padgett's song is very much on point, however, because if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about anything, it is the search for a father figure. Grandpa Joe, played by John Rubinstein -- a shock to those of us who remember him as Pippin -- has a close bond with Charlie. He is ultimately replaced by Willy Wonka, who, not to the show's advantage, remains a mysterious, even sinister, presence until just before the final curtain. He appears in the first act in the guise of a Wonka Chocolate store manager, commenting sardonically on Charlie's search for the golden ticket. Later, his true identity revealed, Willy leads the kids (and their parents) on the tour, dispatching the little ones, except for Charlie, in grisly, if imaginative, ways; think of it as the tweener version of And Then There Were None. Augustus, Veruca, et al., are played by adult actors, so the musical doesn't seem like an elaborate exercise in child abuse, as was the case in London. Once these rivals are destroyed, Willy, in a total turnabout, names Charlie his heir, showering on him the attention the boy has yearned for all along. The book of the musical is attributed to David Greig, but its spiritual father is Sigmund Freud.

As in London, the book suffers from the fact that it takes an entire act to get to the chocolate factory, spending a great deal of time on characters who won't return after intermission. The dullish scenes of Charlie and his family alternate with a set of wickedly satirical introductory numbers; the best of these are "More of Him to Love," an oompah band tribute to Augustus' staggering appetite, wittily choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; "What Veruca Says," which demonstrates the girl's hold over her thuggish father; the hip-hop-influenced "Queen of Pop," in which Violet is backed by a set of "gum-chompin' divas;" and "What Could Possibly Go Wrong?," in which Mrs. Teavee blithely ignores that fact that she is raising a psychopath.

The second act is, quite possibly, the most macabre children's entertainment ever, with each child disposed of in a highly original way. (Each of them breaks a cardinal Wonka rule: For example, Violet snacks on a special berry-flavored gum not yet cleared for the public; she turns into a giant berry and explodes, leaving nothing but purple entrails.) During these scenes, I often found myself laughing against my better judgment. Many reviewers have accused Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of being vulgar and heartless; I will only note that the children in the audience at the performance I attended seemed to have no problem with it whatsoever.

The role of Willy Wonka extends Christian Borle's array of original comic turns, and if he sometimes seems to be standing outside the character, there's probably no other way to play it, given that his true intentions are left shrouded until the finale. At the performance I attended, the role of Charlie, which is triple-cast, was played by the charming and unaffected Ryan Sell. Among the generally capable cast, I particularly enjoyed Kathy Fitzgerald and F. Michael Haynie as the Gloops, and, of course, Jackie Hoffman, who slays repeatedly as Mrs. Teavee, a desperate housewife with a pillbox and flask of booze kept permanently close at hand. (She raps, "Klonopin, Ativan, Paxil, and Valium/I need a pill just to sit down and tally 'em/Propofol's good, I got Librium here/And I chase 'em all down with a bucket of beer!")

As these lines indicate, Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) are up to their usual mischief, although, perhaps inevitably, none of their contributions are as memorable as the Leslie Bricusse film holdovers "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination," both of which hail from a separate showbiz universe and seem jarringly out of place here.

As noted, Mark Thompson has scaled back his set design, with mixed results. The two-floor Bucket household, with the grandparents ensconced upstairs, is a witty touch, as is the small exterior view of the chocolate factory; some of the factory interiors look a little rickety, however, especially the garden made entirely of candy, which puts one in mind of an underfunded store window display. Near the end, there is a lovely elevator effect. Jeff Sugg's video and projection design shines in the sequences in which news reporters track down the golden ticket winners, and Japhy Weideman uses a number of ballyhoo effects to liven up these scenes. Thompson's costumes, especially for those awful children, are comically mordant; the same is true of Hoffman's 1950s hausfrau ensembles.Basil Twist's puppet designs are pure imagination, turning Willy Wonka's Oompa Loompas into a creepily funny half-pint chorus line. Andrew Keister's sound design is pleasingly natural.

If Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn't likely to entertain adults looking for a sophisticated Broadway musical, it is probably just the thing for parents looking to take the kids to a show. They aren't likely to notice its less-than-seamless assembly and will revel in the show's distinctly black humor. -- David Barbour

(1 May 2017)

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