BWW Review: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY IS WINNER at The Straz Center For The Performing Arts
As the first familiar notes of "The Candy Man" wafts across the audience in Carol Morsani Hall, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia. I grew up watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on television and am curious how a show with so many special effects could translate to the stage.
Whether you know the original Roald Dahl book, the 1971 TV version with Gene Wilder, or the updated 2005 Johnny Depp movie, most everyone knows the legendary chocolatier Willie Wonka. On stage, Noah Weisberg delights as the chocolate factory owner thinly veiled, masquerading as the shop owner. Just the first number, "The Candy Man" with Wonka and the ensemble makes me excited for what is to come.
The first act centers on this kind boy, Charlie, and his destitute family. Charlie makes a visit to a newly opened chocolate shop and meets the shop owner who tells him about a 'golden ticket' contest.
Henry Boshart, as Charlie, the only child in the production, is incredibly likable as the boy who wants to be just like Wonka. He has both incredible acting chops and a powerful voice that you could hear in the furthest row in the auditorium.
Although it is set in somewhat current time, I think the drab colors and costume patterns are muted in Charlie's world to symbolize the desperation of his living situation. Grandma Josephine (Jennifer Jill Malenke), Grandpa George (Benjamin Howes), Grandma Georgina (Claire Newmann), and Grandpa Joe (James Young) are the comic relief that has shared the same bed for 40 years, leaving Charlie's mother to work multiple jobs to take care of the household.
Seeing the show as an adult, the message came across a little different. Couldn't the grandmas be hand-darning socks or something to contribute to the family? In the musical Grandpa Joe is almost 90, which means he should have been able to work for at least 20 of those 40 years in bed. Immediately, when Charlie finds the golden ticket, if he is permanently disabled, how is Grandpa Joe shakily up and at em? I never thought much of the grandparents' situation as a kid, but as a grown-up, all I can think of is the poor overworked Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose).
Grandpa Joe is Charlie's protective companion in make-believe, making something from nothing, showing him the importance of imagination through tall tales. James wears the role of Grandpa Joe as surely as his suspenders.
Mrs. Buckets' loving song to her son, "If Your Father Were Here," is a highlight of the production.
With some familiar songs from the film, the stage musical is updated for the kids of today. Wonka hides five golden tickets in his chocolate bars, and children around the world create what the newspeople call a "chococalypse," unruly children on a quest for the elusive ticket. With these magical tickets, the children are granted entry to Wonka's mysterious factory that completely defies explanation.
Winners Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), Veruca Salt (Halli Toland), and Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino) exceptionally exemplify examples of gluttony, overindulgence, self-centeredness, and addiction. Each member of the quartet introduces us to their stereotype through exceptional dance and gymnastic routines.
In these characters are where the most changes appear. While Augustus still is a chubby sausage-link-eating German boy overly doted on by his mother, Mrs. Gloop (Beth Kirkpatrick), Violet is now a YouTube star known as the "Queen of Pop" for her gum-chewing due to her dad and manager Mr. Beauregard (David Samuel). Veruca is still greedy, and manipulative to her Russian father (Nathaniel Hackmann), afraid to tell her no, but she now is a demanding ballerina. Mike is a computer hacker, still addicted to television, but also video games, a cell phone, and a tablet. Mrs. Teavee (Madeline Doherty) overmedicates the boy, numbs herself with alcohol, and uses all forms of sedentary entertainment as Mike's babysitter. And we already know, when Charlie eventually discovers the final ticket, he is antithesis to these four.
In the second act, puppetry, lighting, and video projections create enchanted special effects to make the fantastical world inside the chocolate factory come to life in vivid spectacular colors.
Wonka's peculiar, whimsical, albeit God-like, side is revealed. He is judge and jury of the children who disobey.
Without giving too much away, each spoiled brat meets his maker.
The image that will haunt my nightmares is Veruca gracefully leaping across the stage, a dance partner to human-size squirrels and then.... "Veruca's Nutcracker Suite" is an expected scene you won't soon forget.
Each time the Oompa Loompas appear to sing the warning and witness the four unappreciative winners meet their fates.
Except for Charlie.
When seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my main question is how those creepy Oompa Loompas will transfer for screen to stage. Met with the most thunderous applause of the production, they are absolutely one-hundred percent magical.
With puppetry created by Basil Twist and dance choreography by Joshua Bergasse, the performers are cloaked in black, only their faces visible below neon orange wigs. On their knees, their black-gloved hands make dancers of the diminutive Oompa Loompa puppet bodies. Despite the orchestra sometimes overpowering their vocals, the actors behind the Oompa Loompas are incredibly talented.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fresh take on a dated story, keeping pieces of the original, but making them more in line for today's generation. Children can enjoy, and parents and grandparents can reminiscence.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Straz Center's Carol Morsani Hall through October 13. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The Thursday, Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m. performance will be sign language interpreted. www.strazcenter.org.