BWW Review: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY Concocts a Bittersweet Confection at AT&T Performing Arts Center
During the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka tells the audience that there comes a time in every chocolatier's life when, once his chocolate has begun to turn dark and bitter, he must choose someone new to take his place. While Wonka's chocolates and candies can still be found in stores across the globe, the latest iteration of his now-classic story of succession tastes stale and - at times - lacks any taste at all. The touring production of the Broadway musical runs through August 25 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, shortening its original run by almost a week.
The 2017 Broadway musical - with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman - adapts Roald Dahl's 1964 young adult novel of the same name, incorporating elements from both the 1971 and 2005 film adaptations. The plot has become a familiar one: Wonka holds a contest, inviting five lucky children and their guardians to his closely-guarded chocolate factory if they can find the golden tickets hidden inside his candy bar wrappers. The charmingly imaginative yet unfortunately poor Charlie Bucket finds one of the tickets, as do four of the brattiest and most unpleasant children one is likely to ever find. What follows is a (usually) humorous and magical adventure tale that doubles as a morality lesson for younger audiences.
Much of the 2017 musical's faults lie within the script itself, a sad fact given that the Broadway run and the show's current tour have remarkably talented casts (more on that later). Greig's book moves in fits and starts, frequently dwelling on moments that do nothing to advance the plot or our emotional interest in the characters. Many of his jokes will get a chuckle out of even the most reserved viewers, but these moments also show how uncertain Greig is of the show's audience. The grossly juvenile and the bawdily mature mix in a way that could have been clever but instead comes across as deeply insecure.
The songs are what most audiences will remember, especially classic moments from the film such as "I've Got a Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," and of course "The Oompa Loompa Song." The original numbers crafted by Shaiman and Wittman are also pretty good in their own rights, though their rudimentary wordplay cannot compare to the show's more familiar and imaginative tunes. These new songs, while fun enough, never strike the ear as being catchy enough to be memorable, and some numbers are so completely overwhelmed by the stagecraft taking place that many viewers won't even recognize what it is they're supposed to be hearing. For example, Mike Teevee's swansong "Vidiots" is not nearly as interesting as the kaleidoscopic videos projected on the set's many LED screens.
It is fair to note that, while a theatre critic might make note of these faults, younger viewers are unlikely to care about the finer nuances of songwriting and plot development. They are far more likely to be impressed and delighted by the talents of the cast, and they are right to do so. As mentioned before, this touring cast is quite good, with several members being downright astonishing.
Filling in the rather large shoes and top hat of Willy Wonka, Noah Weisberg manages to pay homage to the performances of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp while still bringing his own charm and youthful vigor to the role. Weisman's Wonka delivers his lines with light touches of sarcasm and cynicism, an attitude appropriate for a man who has started to lose his edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Which bring to mind one concern about this version of the character. Greig's script seems unable to determine whether Wonka ought to be a fame-hungry capitalist or an innocent visionary in love with his craft. Because of this, the character's motivations often seem at odds, but Weisman's consistent good humor mostly manages to push the candy man into the latter category. This may be due in part to Weisman's pleasing tenor voice, which adds a nice warmth and sensitivity in numbers such as "Pure Imagination" and "The View from Here."
Henry Boshart played the role of Charlie Bucket on opening night with an impressive degree of skill for a young actor. After Weisman (and perhaps even ahead of him), Boshart takes on the biggest role of the show, hardly ever leaving the stage yet always maintaining his youthful energy and excitement for over two hours. His Charlie has an endearing innocence selflessness about him, a quality best shown in his rendition of "I've Got a Golden Ticket" and the sweetly sensitive "A Letter from Charlie Bucket." In addition to his big and bright vocals, Boshart is also quite funny, knowing how to expertly modulate his performance between outbursts of excitement and more subdued reactions of wonder.
Boshart's stage family provides him with ample talent and support. James Young gives a brilliant lesson in the art of physical comedy as Grandpa Joe, the guardian who ends up accompanying Charlie to the factory. As Mrs. Bucket, Charlie's mother, Amanda Rose sings sweetly despite her character's many hardships, doting on Charlie and Joe with a heartwarming and unconditional love. One moment from Rose's performance stands out in particular. In a scene completely original to the musical, Rose's Mrs. Bucket shares a sweetly tender and dreamlike pas de deux with the memory of her deceased husband. Rose's look of sheer wonder and bittersweet delight provides audiences with a tender reprieve in a production otherwise filled with flashing lights and images.
Other noteworthy performances include those of Matt Wood as Augustus Gloop and Brynn Williams as Violet Beauregard, both of whom ham up their characters' delightful physical comedy. This musical transforms the role of the bratty heiress Veruca Salt into a Russian prima ballerina, a change that allows dancer Jessica Cohen the chance to display her impressive expertise as well as a devilish sense of humor. Veruca Salt is little more than fancy set dressing for most of the show, but Cohen's performance is captivating, and audiences will have a hard time looking away from her, especially when launching into one of her delightful routines. Similarly, Daniel Quadrino shows off his own physical skill as the television-addicted Mike Teevee, launching himself off of his armchair to impossible heights and tackling his character's physical bits with commitment and good humor. His high rock tenor also makes for a nice break from some of the show's more traditional numbers, and it's a shame Quadrino doesn't have more opportunities to show off his talents. One other performance that caught the eye of nearly every in the audience on opening night was that of Clyde Voce, playing a hilariously despondent yet enterprising vegetable saleswoman.
The remainder of the production's artistic and design elements are, like the show itself, a mixed bag. Joshua Bergasse's choreography makes for one of the strongest aspects of the musical, mixing styles as varied as ballet, German polka, and hip-hip to create impressive visual pictures. Mark Thompson's costume designs are similarly wondrous, updating the characters' looks for the 21stcentury while still hearkening back to their previous iterations. Less imaginative is that the set is dominated by countless LED screens, which project images to transport the characters from scene to scene rather than allowing set pieces to do the work instead. Sometimes, this is a practical matter, such as when short scenes take place in locations that are never returned to again (Bavaria, Russia, Iowa). But the wonder of Wonka's factory is diminished when artificial images take the place of physical elements with which the cast might actually have been able to interact.
All this having been said, younger audience members seemed to have left the Winspear Opera House with smiles on their faces on opening night, thoroughly delighted and entertained by the previous couple of hours. More mature audiences might find this treat to be too artificially sweet for their tastes, though, preferring a more substantial offering.