Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical plays on nostalgia to sweet effect
At first blush, the existence of the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels a lot like the existence of the all of the “live action” remakes of classic Disney animated films. The idea is interesting, but there’s no real need for it in the world given that there have been not one but two movies based on Roald Dahl’s book, both featuring versions of songs made famous by the first movie.
It’s those songs that everyone is waiting for in the production (playing at Winspear Opera House through August 25), along with the ignominious fates of the various winners of Willy Wonka’s coveted Golden Ticket. But the musical, with book by David Grieg and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, makes you wait for those moments, as most of its big scenes come in the second act of the show.
The production does offer a few new aspects to differentiate itself from the films. Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg) is introduced right away, disguising himself as the owner of a candy store. This leaves him in perfect position to witness the increasing despair of Charlie Bucket (played on opening night by Henry Boshart) as other kids around the world find Golden Tickets that will give them access to Wonka’s long-shuttered factory.
Charlie, of course, does find a Golden Ticket and soon joins Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), and Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood) on the tour of Wonka’s factory. These scenes are mostly familiar except with the fate of Veruca, which hues close to Dahl’s original text, save for one gruesome change.
The various story adjustments and clever production aspects keep things interesting. Instead of traditional sets, the production uses lighted walls full of graphics to create illusionary depth and interactive elements. The solution for making the tiny Oompa Loompas is arguably the best part of the show; when they make their entrance, it garners the audience’s loudest reaction.
Because of the anticipation of the songs from the movies, few of the new songs make much of an impact. Each of the other Golden Ticket winners has both an entrance and exit song, but it’s the visuals in those scenes that matter more than the music. The sole song that does manage to break through is second act opener “Strike That, Reverse It,” mostly because it’s revisited on a couple of different occasions.
It’s slightly odd, though not completely off-putting, that all of the Golden Ticket winners except for Charlie are played by adults. There have been plenty of other theater productions with multiple children in prominent roles, so it’s unclear why that couldn’t have been the case here. Still, Cohen, Williams, and Wood each play their respective roles well, hiding their maturity to at least appear childlike.
The only role that truly matters is that of Willy Wonka, and Weisberg comes off relatively well. With two iconic performances to judge him against, it’s almost a no-win role, but he makes it his own. He never goes too wacky or too reserved, but his delivery of key lines makes up for this down-the middle approach.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of those musicals where nostalgia plays the biggest part in its success. It’s not a production you’ll be talking about for weeks after you see it, but it gives the audience almost exactly what they came for, which is more than enough.