Review: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has interesting ingredients but blah taste
Imagine you’re holding a bar of Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. The name alone promises deliciousness.
A name’s a powerful thing, especially if it has delivered satisfaction before, and, surely, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has done that, whether in the original 1964 novel or the 1971 film adaptation — the 2005 movie maybe not so much.
For a stage musical that arrived on London’s West End in 2013, then on Broadway in 2017, a few more goodness-promising names were added to the wrapper: “Hairspray” composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman (also recent Oscar nominees for “Mary Poppins Returns”). For New York, another “Hairspray” talent joined the project: director Jack O’Brien, replacing London’s Sam Mendes.
How disappointing, then, to open the shiny packaging of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on tour — now at the Hollywood Pantages for three weeks and headed to Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa later this spring — to discover that the product inside is neither terrific nor terrible, merely bland.
We had warning, of course. Although the London production ran for more than 3½ years, the extensively reworked New York version ran barely nine months and received not a single Tony nomination.
Video technology and cool special effects bring to life the fantastical world inside secretive Willy Wonka’s candy factory, opened to five lucky children who’ve found a golden ticket inside a Wonka product.
The novel teaches a powerful lesson about haves and have-nots. The central character, Charlie Bucket, is from a family so desperately poor that they are on the brink of starvation when the boy discovers one of the tickets. But the household is loving and dependable, and it has instilled in Charlie a pure soul and a lively imagination, whereas the other four children are spoiled dolts.
Charlie’s heart and mind enable him to thrive during the tour of Wonka’s factory; the others’ gluttony leads them to violent demises.
The message barely registers, however, in a show more intent on providing each child a big production number, then staging a factory tour in which each scene out-dazzles the last. For all the lip service that David Greig’s script gives to the mind’s superior powers of creativity, the show delivers just the opposite, leaving little to the imagination in a pile-on of technology.
The set is outfitted with a giant video panel framed by more video panels, enabling visuals — designed by Jeff Sugg — as subtle as falling snow or as flashy as music-video-like backgrounds for the kids’ introductory numbers. Once inside the factory, the panels convey its lavish but disorienting environment. Gadgetry enables bubble-gum-addicted Violet to inflate before our eyes and a doll-size version of video-game-obsessed Mike to be retrieved, twitching and gesticulating, from inside a television screen.
The show’s unqualified hit is its way of rendering the Oompa-Loompas, Wonka’s diminutive factory workers. The performers are dressed in puppeteer all-black, so that only their faces are visible beneath bright orange wigs. Kneeling, they use their black-gloved hands to manipulate the short arms and legs of tiny puppet bodies. The puppetry was devised by 2015 MacArthur fellow Basil Twist, the Oompa-Loompas’ jaunty choreography by Joshua Bergasse.
The Shaiman-Wittman songs never do catch on, whether infused with operetta, pop, hip-hop or metal. The show’s American version incorporates four Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley songs from the 1971 film, and those — especially “The Candy Man” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” — are what theatergoers go about humming during intermission.
Except for Charlie, adult actors portray the children. If nothing else, this makes the youngster portraying our young hero seem more genuine. At Wednesday’s opening, the role was winningly handled by Rueby Wood (one of three alternating actors), who is irresistibly enthusiastic and sounds sweet and pure in song.
James Young is feisty as tall-tale-telling Grandpa Joe, who serves as Charlie’s guardian during the tour, and Amanda Rose contributes a lovely mezzo singing voice and a gentle, nurturing demeanor to Charlie’s mother.
As Wonka, Noah Weisberg is compelled to rein himself in during the first half, while masquerading as proprietor of a neighborhood chocolate shop. Once he’s leading the tour in the second act, he gets to let loose his wacky, rubber-limbed side, but as talented as he is, he mostly comes across like a late-night talk-show host who’s consumed too much caffeine.
Despite the production’s fumbles, the source material — and memories of it in other versions — seem to keep much of the audience happy, and lots of theatergoers bring kids.
Maybe the sight of all those sweets is bliss enough. The show’s truest line is Wonka’s declaration that chocolate is “quite simply, the greatest invention in the entire history of the world.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends April 14
Info: (800) 982-2787, HollywoodPantages.com
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Also: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. May 28-June 9. $29-$119. (714) 556-2787, SCFTA.org
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