BWW Review: Semi-Sweet CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY Gets Sprinkled Into OC's Segerstrom Center
On paper, a stage musical adaptation of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY---Roald Dahl's beloved 1964 children's novel about a sweet, affable kid who wins a meet-and-greet (and more!) with an eccentric Candy Man named Willy Wonka---seems like an inspired, long-overdue idea. After all, Dahl's story has already been famously adapted into a very well-liked, now classic 1971 motion picture starring Gene Wilder, as well as a less-liked 2005 iteration starring Johnny Depp.
Embedded into the story's DNA is a remarkable mix of fantasy and not-so-subtle teachable moments, along with a dash of satire and spoonfuls of whimsy, all of which scream for a big, visually-dazzling stage iteration that all theatergoers will likely eat up.
A stage version helmed by Sam Mendes finally does arrive first in London in 2013, which later birthed a retooled, short-lived Broadway version directed by Jack O' Brien in 2017---which is the version now touring North America. In perhaps the adaptation's smartest move, the musical includes the iconic songs written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film. The show's new songs---a stark if serviceable contrast to Bricusse and Newley's tunes---come from Broadway vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which are then paired with a new uneven book by David Greig.
Suffice it to say that despite its general pleasant nature, many cute moments, and a plethora of genuine talent on stage, this stage adaptation---now continuing performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through June 9---comes off less magical and whimsical than one would hope it would be considering its source material. Is this national tour production joyful enough for kids and kids-at-heart to enjoy? Sure. But, overall, something about it feels just slightly under-baked, as if all the additional necessary ingredients that would have made this musical extraordinary didn't quite make it into the mix.
"It's only okay," was a frequent comment I overheard while walking out of the recent performance I saw. Frankly, I wholeheartedly agree.
While, overall, the show has many entertaining moments and made me chuckle here and there, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY doesn't quite show you the promised, fully-realized world of pure imagination it advertised. Being "only okay" isn't okay for a property so many people hold close to their hearts.
Much of the plot, of course, is familiar territory. The Charlie mentioned in the title is Charlie Bucket (Collin Jeffery), a kind, super nice young kid whose astonishingly sweet demeanor is always present despite being extremely poor. Naturally, the kid's a dreamer with a big heart who always thinks of others before himself. His one vice, though, is a chocolate candy bar---particularly from the Willy Wonka brand line---which, we learn, is the one piece of gifted sweetness that he receives as a Birthday treat each year. Patiently, he waits every year for his one pleasure in life. Cue the awwwww's.
At Charlie's humble---and cartoonishly cramped---home, we meet his elderly grandparents all literally sleeping in one giant bed together for space and heat: Grandma Josephine (Jennifer Jill Malenke), Grandma Georgina (Claire Neumann), Grandpa George (Benjamin Howes), and, Charlie's favorite---and biggest cheerleader---Grandpa Joe (James Young), who, coincidentally, use to work at the Wonka factory along time ago. Charlie's sweet but overwhelmed mom, Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose) tries her best to keep the household fed and content.
So how good is Charlie? Well, he's put in charge most times to buy food for the household. Despite the temptation of a new Willy Wonka pop-up shop that suddenly appears out of nowhere (with a remarkably familiar shopkeeper behind the counter), he doesn't lose sight of making sure that the money in his pocket goes towards its intended purchase, rather than satisfying a selfish desire.
But this being a Roald Dahl narrative, a wonderful surprise occurs: Charlie's wish comes true when he wins one of five highly-coveted Golden Tickets that have been inserted randomly into Willy Wonka's bars as a promotion to increase sales as well as for, um, well another reason we'll discover later. The contest works as planned, with everyone in the world clamoring for more candy in the hopes of getting one of the five tickets, and with the press salivating to cover each discovery.
Besides Charlie, there are four other recipients of Golden Tickets, each of whom are, unsurprisingly, less nice. Meant as, perhaps, cautionary examples of how not to be as a, um, person, these other kids are prone to selfishness, rudeness, self-gratification, and easy temptation---and all have been updated with today's vices versus their 1971 counterparts. There's spoiled, materialistic brat Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), gum-chewing social media "influencer" Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), rotund Bavarian food binger Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), and screen and gaming addict Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino). Naturally, the story also presents one parent for each of these four kids, all of whom make excuses for or, worse, encourage the behavior of their respective brats.
In its expected structure, the first act spends much of the narrative focused on Charlie's (and, by extension, the world's) quest to properly earn a Golden Ticket. The much gentler Charlie is hindered, of course, by his family's finances---a problem that doesn't exist for the other entitled kids---but is comforted by the existence of actual love and care of his family.
The second act switches the action---and mood---entirely, setting the narrative primarily inside Wonka's weirdly fascinating candy factory, where we see Charlie and Grandpa Joe join the other winning kids and their parentals (played by Madeleine Doherty, David Samuel, Nathaniel Hackmann, and Kathy Fitzgerald) taking the promised tour inside Willy Wonka's mysterious inner sanctum. It is, as one would predict, a decisively much more colorful and dazzling setting for the show (which prominently features Mark Thompson's elaborate costumes and sets paired vividly with Jeff Sugg's animated projections and Japhy Weideman's lighting designs).
The story morphs understandably (but unfortunately) into vignette mode, as one-by-one, each kid is (spoiler alert!) disposed of in one mean, horrible way than the one before it. Each deserved (?) comeuppance is played for snarky laughs, but the dark comedy turn the show opts to embrace keeps things less magical and more just gratuitously mean-spirited.
I can't say, however, that the show didn't have some great aspects that make it still a worthwhile night out, particularly for the kids. The entire cast, for one, is truly outstanding.
As Willy Wonka, the wacky chocolatier who opens up his secretive factory to a select few, Noah Weisberg is outstanding, admirably capturing the spirit of the character, which straddle philanthropic kindness with sadistic wickedness. Funny, goofy, and armed with a pleasant singing voice, Weisberg makes the best of his given material and walks away proving to be a winning character actor.
Also excellent is young Collin Jeffrey who played Charlie at the performance I attended (he shares the role with Henry Boshart and Rueby Wood), who displays remarkable range for his age and can hold his own opposite Weisberg. Besides his enthusiastic performance style, he also brings out the best in co-star Young, whose lovable spitfire Grandpa Joe is arguably the heart of the musical. Rose does a great job essaying her role as Charlie's mom, overworked and overwhelmed trying to keep her job and her rickety house filled with geriatric relatives in order.
Others worth noting include Charlie's factory tour co-winners: Cohen and Wood brought the physical comedy while Quadrino and Williams brought awesome vocal skills. Parents Doherty, Fitzgerald, Samuel, and Hackmann also earns some laughs.
Again, to be frank, this wonderful cast deserves better material, but they are so infectiously earnest and demonstratively talented that its very hard not to cheer them all on anyway---and we do.
But perhaps the best thing about this stage version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is its ingeniously clever depiction of the story's infamous Oompa Loompas, the pint-sized orange-haired workers inside Willy Wonka's factory. A wonderful, superbly theatrical invention by Basil Twist, the sort of puppeteered/sort of danced-out characters come to life by combining visual trickery, puppet accoutrements, and sheer performance glee that will guarantee to wow with every appearance. They're certainly a welcome, joyfully buoyant visual distraction to the dark tone that lingers throughout this second act.
Overall, there's still enough here to merit a visit. The show provides laughs and smile-inducing moments that make the sum of its parts still an enjoyable revisit with a story many of us are familiar with already. The kids will enjoy the dorky sight gags and the theatrical razzle dazzle. Adults aching for a mini-trip down memory lane will get some but not all of their cravings satisfied. A fine, admirable production, this somewhat long-awaited stage adaptation of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY just lacks enough oomph to render it above "just okay."
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Photos from the National Tour of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Joan Marcus.
Performances of Roald Dahl'S CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, June 9, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.