BWW Review: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY at PPAC
As a massive Roald Dahl fan, this reviewer secretly hopes his entire catalog will wind up as Broadway shows someday. For now, we have Matilda The Musical (London 2010, Broadway 2013) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London 2013, Broadway 2017). The stage version of the 1964 novel that has had two film adaptations does a very good job of marrying the original text with many of the beloved songs from the 1971 film. It also doesn't shy away from the fact that Willy Wonka invites five children into his place of business, and four of them may end up dead or disfigured by the end of the day. The script has some updates for the time period, but in this age of helicopter parenting and raising your kids practically encased in bubble wrap, it's kind of nice see this show lean into the darker aspects of the story, which are the hallmarks of Roald Dahl's writing.
At its core, this is a story about virtue triumphing over vice--the meek inheriting the earth, but while the character of Charlie Bucket sometimes seems too good to be true, he's also pretty believable as a regular, good-natured kid. He lives with his mom and four grandparents, helps with the grocery shopping, and once a year on his birthday he gets a Wonka chocolate bar. He's also a dreamer who will spend hours coming up with different ideas for kinds of candy, rather than doing his homework. Ultimately, it's Charlie's imagination that helps him triumph over the other children who are bogged down greed, gluttony, entitlement and excessive consumption/ overriding interest in bubble gum.
Many of the best-loved songs from the 1971 movie are included in the stage version as well. At this point, that film is such a staple in the Wonka universe, that it would be odd to not include Candy Man, Pure Imagination and I've Got a Golden Ticket, and it's just great fun to see those songs performed live. The original songs for the stage production are entertaining, but lack some of the memorability of the older ones. Unfortunately, audio issues made it nearly impossible to understand the lyrics of songs by Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregard.
Working with child actors is always a bit of a tricky proposition, and this show gets around that by having most of the children's roles played by adults. The only child on stage is the actor playing Charlie Bucket, and he was absolutely outstanding. Henry Boshart, Collin Jeffery, and Rueby Wood rotate through the role and Collin Jeffery's performance on Tuesday night seemed like a preview for a remarkable career in musical theatre.
Benjamin Howes, as Willy Wonka, captured the smirking, vaguely unsettling spirit of Gene Wilder, but also very much makes this role his own. His singing voice is a strong, clear tenor that is a pleasure to listen to. He also does an excellent job of keeping his poker face throughout all of his interactions with the children. As the other kids act deplorably during the factory tour, Wonka warns them once to stop, and then just hangs back waiting to see what will happen. Those who know the story know that everything works out well for Charlie in the end, but the specific ways we get to that resolution are slightly different, and Howes never tips his hand, which is interesting and makes the story feel new.
The Oompa Loompas are, of course, an essential element to this story. Instead of being played by diminutive actors, they are puppets, which works remarkably well. They have several songs throughout, including the much more elaborate backstory of how they ended up moving from Loompaland to work at Wonka's factory.
One slightly underwhelming aspect of the production was the sets and projections. The New York Times review of the Broadway production described the sets as "blindingly flashy", which is what one would expect when visiting Willy Wonka's astonishing secret factory, but the traveling production left a bit to be desired. There are many, many set changes, so it's understandable that things need to be scaled back. Unfortunately, as is becoming typical of many touring shows lately, projections are relied on far too often as a stand-in for actual sets, and the projections in this show were unexpectedly staid. Additionally, the "Great Glass Elevator" at the end merely rose up on a scissor lift about two feet, and then just sat there. There was no upward surge, no smoking rockets, just a barely perceptible raise set against projections of the elevator's rise into the heavens. Considering the fact that the elevator is supposed to propel Charlie and Wonka through a ceiling and out into space--one might have expected a bit more liftoff.
Despite a few hiccups, this is a fun night of song and spectacle. Adults will get a heavy dose of nostalgia, and children will get to experience a beloved author's work in a fresh new way.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs February 5-10 at Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St Providence, Rhode Island 02903. Tickets available at ppacri.org or by calling (401) 421 - ARTS (2787)