'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Noah Weisberg (center) and the cast of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
The Candy Man can't.
4/14/2019

The touring company of the Broadway show based on Roald Dahl's classic novel arrives in Hollywood with strong leads and colorful design, geared for kids and for grown-up kids.

If it can be a classic book, a classic film starring Gene Wilder and a not-so-classic film starring Johnny Depp, then of course Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be a classic musical. In 2013, the other major stage adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel, Matilda, won seven Olivier Awards, though it lost out on the best musical Tony to Kinky Boots. So, Dahl's work is proven stage material, and yes, Charlie might make a great musical one day. Just not today. Sorry to say the Candy Man can’t in this imagining of the sweet-toothed saga, derived from Sam Mendes' 2013 West End production, which was retooled for Broadway by director Jack O'Brien and folded after a commercially disappointing run of less than a year.

Not that Noah Weisberg, leading the cast as Willy Wonka, isn’t a strong singer with an affable, offbeat comedic presence. He's that and more. But neither he nor puppeteer Basil Twist's deliriously inspired Oompa Loompas can turn this merely competent show into mouth-watering confection.

Generations of us have heard or read of poor, sweet Charlie Bucket (Rueby Wood, alternating with Henry Boshart and Collin Jeffery), who endures a life of poverty without complaint. His one pleasure is a candy bar on his birthday from the Wonka factory that dominates his town, always churning out sweets although no workers ever seem to come or go.

When a promotional tour of the factory is offered to a fortunate five who find a golden ticket in their candy bar, Charlie is one of the lucky winners, joined by petulant Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), self-promoting Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams), gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood) and attitudinal Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino).

The first act presents a contest with rising dramatic tension as Charlie’s chances of finding the golden ticket narrow. The tour of the factory featuring Mark Thompson’s fantastical designs in the second act should take the show up a notch, but instead the story stalls, with each of the children dispatched in a gruesome manner.

Helping things along is MacArthur Genius Grant winner Twist, who steals the show with his inventive Oompa Loompas. His design features just the performers on their knees, dressed in black, with their heads over miniaturized puppet bodies, which they manipulate in a technique borrowed from the Japanese Bunraku tradition.

If Wonka dominates the second act, the first act is Charlie’s, and young Rueby Wood did an exemplary job in the spotlight on opening night. He anchored the ensemble, bringing earnest warmth to "A Letter From Charlie Bucket" and unbridled verve to "I’ve Got a Golden Ticket," underscored with a lively step and verse or two by Charlie's partner in crime, Grandpa Joe (James Young), who offers avuncular support and guidance to the boy.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Madeleine Doherty, who originated the role of Grandma Georgina on Broadway, playing Mrs. Teavee here. A sly standout, she gets big laughs as a besotted, browbeaten Iowan mom stuck in the 1950s. And Kathy Fitzgerald, another New York holdover, reprises her Mrs. Gloop, the Bavarian hausfrau and mother of compulsive wiener consumer Augustus.

Taking over from Christian Borle on Broadway, Weisberg artfully treads a fine line between playful and creepy as Wonka. Adding a dash of Groucho and a teaspoon of Jim Carrey while making the role his own, he leads the ensemble with panache in a show that is tonally off, despite the efforts of three-time Tony winner O'Brien, reuniting with his Hairspray team, composer Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman.

The level of carnage in the second act qualifies as dark comedy, standing in contrast to the family-friendly tone captured in Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s brighter melodies like "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination." Borrowed from the Wilder film, those songs clash with rather than complement Shaiman's strangely strident, non-melodic numbers. Though the often-witty lyrics make some of them charmers, like "Strike That, Reverse It," Wonka’s boisterous second-act opener, most are more like "Queen of Pop," introducing Violet and her gum-chompin' Divas, an upbeat number that lands with a splat.

Not helping matters is David Greig’s inert book, which adds two lines about the importance of imagination and calls it a theme, leaving the audience to imagine a better Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Venue: Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Noah Weisberg, Henry Boshart, Collin Jeffery, Rueby Wood, Clyde Voce, James Young, Amanda Rose, Jennifer Jill Malenke, Claire Neumann, Benjamin Howes, Joel Newsome, Sarah Bowden, Kathy Fitzgerald, Matt Wood, Nathaniel Hackmann, Jessica Cohen, David Samuel, Brynn Williams, Madeleine Doherty, Daniel Quadrino, Sarah Bowden, Alex Dreschke, Jess Fry, David R. Gordon, Chavon Hampton, Benjamin Howes, Lily Kaufmann, David Paul Kidder, Jennifer Jill Malenke, Joe Moeller, Tanisha Moore, Claire Neumann, Caylie Rose Newcom, Joel Newsome, Clyde Voce, Borris Anthony York
Director: Jack O'Brien
Music: Marc Shaiman, with songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Book: David Greig, based on the Roald Dahl novel
Set & costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Andrew Keister
Video & projection designer: Jeff Sugg
Puppetry designer: Basil Twist
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Arrangements: Marc Shaiman
Music director & supervisor: Nicholas Skilbeck
Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse
Executive producers: Mark Kaufman, Kevin McCormick, Caro Newling
Presented by Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Langley Park Productions, Neal Street Productions