Will 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' Follow 'Matilda' to Broadway?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Musical Still - P 2013
Helen Maybanks

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Musical Still - P 2013

The Roald Dahl musical adaptation opened in London's West End this week in a big-budget Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures production, elaborately staged by Sam Mendes.

NEW YORK -- Does Broadway have room for two Roald Dahl musicals?

Following the success in London of Matilda, which is also off to a promising start in New York, another stage adaptation of a beloved Dahl children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opened Tuesday amid much fanfare in the West End.

The show is directed by Sam Mendes, hot off his reinvigoration of the 007 franchise with Skyfall. It’s produced by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions and Mendes’ Neal Street Productions.

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Dahl’s 1964 novel about an impoverished boy’s adventures inside the magical factory of enigmatic confectioner Willy Wonka was adapted for the stage by Scottish playwright David Greig. Songs are by the Tony-winning Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

One of the most eagerly anticipated productions of the year in London, the show has opened to reportedly stellar box office, though unlike New York, U.K. grosses are not disclosed. As for the reviews, they were in the mixed-to-positive range, rather than the virtually across-the-board raves garnered by Matilda both in London and New York.

Among the overnight notices, a number of four-star reviews appeared, including The Guardian, Metro, Time Out, The Mirror, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Daily Express and The Evening Standard.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington lauded “Mendes’ skill in masterminding a lavish bonanza of a musical without letting us forget that Dahl’s book is a morality play in which vice is punished and virtue gets its edible reward.”

Alun Palmer in The Mirror wrote, “Mendes has created a show with a heart bigger than a city," while Daily Express reviewer Simon Edge called the show, "a triumph of exuberant stagecraft."

Ian Shuttleworth in The FT wrote, “Overall, the brief in this case clearly is one of visual ravishment plus warm glow, and Mendes, Greig and all concerned come up to the mark. It is flavoursome yet familiar, and above all it won’t rot your teeth.”

But while the praise was near unanimous for Mark Thompson’s ingenious set and costume designs and for Tony winner Douglas Hodge (La Cage aux Folles) in the Willy Wonka role, a number of key critics found the musical over-hyped and emotionally hollow.

The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and Variety all expressed reservations about the show, with even some of Charlie’s supporters comparing it unfavorably to Matilda.

“Not boring, not bad,” was how The TimesLibby Purves described it. “But when it is over little is left, and no urge to rush back bringing all available children (as I did with Matilda). Wonka’s patter-songs are full of paradoxes, and that’s apt. For this biggest, costliest, most famous show adds up to nothing much.”

Another frequent gripe among reviews was the unmemorable quality of Shaiman and Wittman’s score. More than one critic said the new material doesn’t match the charm of “Pure Imagination,” the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley song borrowed from the 1971 screen version, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder.

No concrete plans have been announced, but Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and the U.K. co-producers are understood to have a Broadway transfer in their sights. However, a tepid review from the New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley might slow down that possible transatlantic move.

“Behemoth playthings are forced upon you in such relentless abundance that you wind up feeling like a spoiled, benumbed child on Christmas morning, drowning in a sea of presents and yearning to flee back to bed,” wrote Brantley.

While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has acquired international popularity both through the Wilder film and the 2005 Tim Burton version that starred Johnny Depp, Dahl’s work is not ingrained into the collective imagination in the U.S. to quite the same degree it is in the late writer’s native Britain.

However, despite minority opinions suggesting that Matilda might be too sour for American sensibilities, the Royal Shakespeare Company production drew some of the best reviews of last season on Broadway. It was considered the frontrunner to take the best musical prize at the recent Tony Awards, but was overtaken by a groundswell of popularity for the homegrown Kinky Boots.

Even without the top Tony, Matilda is shaping up into a robust performer in New York. The show has grossed more than $16 million since it began performances at the Shubert Theatre on March 4, and is playing at 100 percent capacity. Last week was the production’s highest-grossing week to date, earning $1,222,026.

Theater industry pundits will be watching closely in the coming months to see whether Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has what it takes to follow Matilda’s path to Broadway.