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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Broadway Review: Death by Chocolate

“The greatest tragedies were written by the Greeks and Shakespeare; neither knew chocolate.” That insight by Sandra Boynton (author of “Chocolate: The Consuming Passion”) helps explain why we must make do with such a cartoonishly dark chocolate dramatization as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” currently at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne.

The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s macabre story stars a top-hatted Christian Borle (Something Rotten, Peter and the Starcatcher, etc.) as chocolate entrepreneur Willy Wonka and a trio of child actors who alternate in the role of 10-year-old Charlie Bucket, an impoverished, upstanding chocolate-lover who is the only one of five juveniles to survive a visit to Willy’s factory.

There might well be theatergoers over the age of ten who will get a sugar high from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” but I am not one of them. The overall effect manages to be too obvious and yet too bland. It doesn’t live up to the promise of its big sister, “Matilda,” which was much praised for its clever lyrics, dazzling stagecraft, and faithful stage adaptation of another one of Dahl’s stories. I would be hard put to use any of those adjectives to describe “Charlie.”  I have nothing especially negative to say about most of the performances, including Christian Borle’s, although nothing especially positive to say about the actors portraying the four insufferable children who, like Charlie, won the sought-after golden tickets to go on the chocolate factory tour — whose misbehavior during the tour one by one leads to their demise. Their ends are clearly meant to be clever, but don’t sparkle in the execution.   Director Jack O’Brien mercifully casts these roles with adults, but then mercilessly pushes them into broadness — not that I expect nuance from somebody drowning in chocolate, or bursting into goo, or ripped apart by giant squirrels.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I recognize that the hard work of many talented hands with impressive track records went into the refashioning of this show since its London debut four years ago. They even remade the exterior of the Lunt-Fontanne to look like Willy Wonka’s factory, complete with cutesy warning signs, and have installed an array of exotic (overpriced) chocolate treats for sale in the lobby. In the scheme of things, such effort should pay off, and it does. I suspect there are enough moments to make the show at least intermittently enjoyable for adult chaperones. What stood out for me:

~The Oompa Loompas, the workers in Wonka’s factery, cleverly devised by genius puppeteer Basil Twist as puppet bodies with the puppeteers’ actual heads in bright orange wigs, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse to hilarious and toe-tapping effect.

~Jackie Hoffman as the boozy mother (Mrs. Teavee) of one of the four insufferable children, social media-obsessed Mike Teavee (portrayed by Michael Wartella) Hoffman’s comic mischievousness has elevated every show in which I’ve seen her (from On The Town to Once Upon a Mattress to the just-ended Feud on FX.) Here she is also given one of the new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, “What Could Possibly Go Wrong”, that attempt topical humor in order to appeal to adults. Sample lyric:

Here in the bosom of America
We love the things that make our country strong. We give our little sons
lots of love and lots of guns.
So, what could possibly go wrong?

~John Rubinstein — the original Pippin, Tony winner for “Children of a Lesser God,” unrecognizable as Grampa Joe, one of Charlie’s four wizened grandparents, the grumpy then exhilarated one who accompanies Charlie to the factory.

~The Candy Man, the song  by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley composed for the 1971 movie that Sammy Davis Jr. made an improbable hit.  Borle sings it at the very top of the show. He also sings another hit from that movie, “Pure Imagination.” Both songs are so familiarly tuneful as to be singer-proof (not that they needed protection from Borle), and they provide a lift, especially for those with a fondness for the movie.

A word about that movie, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which was the first adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder and distributed by Paramount. Roald Dahl was a prolific author of macabre novels for kids, which have been turned into more than a dozen movies, and now three musicals. But the 1971 movie reportedly so “infuriated” Dahl, presumably because of the liberties it took with his 1964 novel,  that he refused to allow any more adaptations of the book during his lifetime.

He died in 1990. In 2005, Warner Bros. made a new movie of the book, starring Johnny Depp.

I wonder what Dahl would have made of that movie, and of the new Broadway musical.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory album

Buy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Buy Roald Dahl Collection – 15 Paperback Book Boxed Set

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Book by David Grieg, based on the book by Roald Dahl; Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman;
Directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse;
Scenic Design by Mark Thompson; Costume Design by Mark Thompson; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Andrew Keister; Video and Projection Design: Jeff Sugg; Puppetry Design: Basil Twist; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young
Cast Christian Borle; Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell as Charlie in alternate performances; John Rubinstein, Emily Padgett, Kathy Fitzgerald, F. Michael Haynie, Ben Crawford, Emma Pfaeffle, Alan H. Green, Trista Dollison, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Wartella, Yesenia Ayala, Darius Barnes, Colin Bradbury, Jared Bradshaw, Ryan Breslin, Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Stephanie Gibson, Talya Groves, Cory Lingner, Elliott Mattox, Monette McKay, Kyle Taylor Parker, Paul Slade Smith, Stephen Carrasco, Kristin Piro, Amy Quanbeck, Michael Williams, and Mikey Winslow

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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