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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Mark Thompson’s spectacular and fantastic visual effects of the London production have unfortunately been lost in crossing the Atlantic.

Christian Borle in a scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began life as an outrageous story by the British fantacist Roald Dahl who also gave the world Matilda. Charlie was later adopted into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, and featuring some first-class songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, one of which, “The Candy Man,” became an instant, top-chart hit, as sung by Sammy Davis, Jr.

It then became, in 2005, a Tim Burton film (starring Johnny Depp), reverting to the original story title, as did the British musical version of 2013, with many additional–and unfortunately, inferior–songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who are also responsible for the score to the Broadway version of Hairspray. And with a vast many changes in songs, scenic and other designs–not to mention, cast and director–that’s what’s now arrived on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre four years later.

If you were alive in 1971, the infectuous and ubiquitous sounds of “The Candy Man” will instantly be swimming around your head during the song’s re-appearance as the opening number of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory–now being sung by the show’s Broadway star, Christian Borle (portraying Willy Wonka). With suitably brassy orchestrations by Doug Besterman and a serviceable book by David Greig, the story is, of course, the same as it’s always been: chocolate factory manufacturer Willy Wonka retires early, only to eventually reopen his factory with a marketing coup: five candy bars will include winning gold tickets for the lucky recepients to receive entry to the factory itself. The ultimate winner will receive chocolate candies for the rest of his or her life. Charlie is, needless to say, the fifth winner. And the other, four colorful winning characters–not to mention, their parents–make up the bulk of the cartoon-like first act.

Ryan Sell in a scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

But if, like both of the earlier film versions, the London musical had some spectacular and fantastic visual effects, they have unfortunately been lost in crossing the Atlantic. Though Mark Thompson’s costumes effectively mimic the ones in the film version of Willy Wonka, his scenic designs here prove ho-hum, and far below Broadway standards. It’s hard not to detect that an extremely cheap budget limited Thompson’s creativity with tacky results. And without the great visual effects, this version of Charlie has become like a “Willy” without his “Wonka.”

With Groundhog Day, Amelie, and Anastasia all ensconsed nearby, there is no dearth of hit movies that have currently been transformed into Broadway musicals as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory arrives in New York. In addition to continuing the London invasion of the Broadway stage (Groundhog Day also had its premiere production in the West End), Charlie begs to ask, how on earth did Roald Dahl come up with such a winning forumla for pleasing both adults and children, with his fantastic, yet dark tales–not only Charlie, but also Matilda? (Yes, Matilda was also based on a Dahl tale.)

For Charlie, Dahl borrowed from two of the most towering works meant for the child in every adult: Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Alice springs to mind not only because Wonka is dressed, like the Mad Hatter–with a top-hat, no less–but also when the principle characters arrive at the eponymous factory only to be shuttled down a rabbit-hole. (Cue the musical’s intermission.) Oz is evoked via the Oompa Loompas, who are munchkins in new garb, here designed as singing and dancing puppets by the always inventive Basil Twist.

John Rubinstein, Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle, Jack Ryan Flynn, Christian Borle, Trista Dollison, Alan H. Green, Jackie Hoffman and Michael Wartella in a scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

But the Broadway version of Charlie doesn’t really come alive until we’re introduced to Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Hayne), the fat little German boy who finds the first of the five gold tickets, and whose mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) sings along with him–as wurst links burst forth from his pockets, and the almost always, lively choreography by Joshua Bergasse, suddeny features clogging steps, with dirndls and lederhosen.

Next comes Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), the young Russian ballerina, who finds the second winning gold ticket, and whose Russian, dictatorial father (Ben Crawford) dotes on his little princess. And then there’s Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison), also cum-father (Alan H. Green). Violet quickly becomes an exploding, overgrown blueberry. There are also Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) and his mother, Mrs. Teavee, from Idaho or “the bosom of America.” The always delightful Jackie Hoffman brings down the house, time and again, as Mrs. Teavee, in a 1950’s patterned dress and a saucy attitude.

But without the more spectacular effects of either of the films–or even of the London production of the musical version, for that matter–Charlie loses most of its impact. It becomes a bunch of people running around a stage, trying to engage us in an empty story. And who cares, or why should we? Even Christian Borle seems to melt into the cardboard scenery.

At the performance under review, as the all-important Grandpa Joe–or the “parent” who accompanies Charlie on his journey to the Chocolate Factory, a winsome Paul Slade Smith subbed for the featured John Rubinstein who was indisposed. And with a rotating group of child actors playing Charlie, I saw a fine Jake Ryan Flynn in the role. Despite all the efforts of director Jack O’Brien and the cast to make the show come alive, the producers should have given up some of their  weekly take to add to the budget for improving the lackluster design elements.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (open run)

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 877-250-2939 or visit http://www.charlieonbroadway.com

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (26 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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