Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Candy Man Can't: Onstage, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' Leaves a Bad Taste in My Mouth -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
the musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 21

If all stage musicals were as estimable as the pedigrees of those creating them, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be absolutely delicious.

I have fond if distant memories of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie starring Gene Wilder, though not so much Tim Burton's 2005 version which matches the musical's title

I love the musical adaptation of another Roald Dahl novel, Matilda, and relish the work Charlie's composer & lyricist team (Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman) did on the Hairspray stage musical. That musical was likewise directed by Jack O'Brien, who has also helmed several others.

But each work is its own creation, and without ripping the cast--especially Noah Weisberg as Willy Wonka and the youngsters playing Charlie Bucket (I believe I saw Rueby Wood on Tuesday night)--I found the touring musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be none too sweet.

This isn’t completely shocking, as the musical pretty much flopped on Broadway, lasting less than a year, garnering no Tony Award nominations and receiving generally mediocre or worse reviews .

The Chicago Tribune’s theater critic, Chris Jones, was dismissive of the Broadway production and lukewarm about the show in Chicago (while praising Weisberg).

Yet even with middling expectations heading into the sumptuous Oriental Theatre, I found myself constantly wishing that the show would end.

Perhaps, never having read Dahl’s book and not having seen the Wilder film for decades, any existing affinity for the source material was steeped more in vague childhood sentimentality than acute actuality.

But judging the musical on its own merits, there was rather little I thought to be stellar, the efforts of the cast notwithstanding.

The scenery seems rather paltry.

Confoundingly, the entire first act takes place beyond the chocolate factory, as we learn of Charlie’s wish to win a “Golden Ticket” to visit it, while four other kids do.

In Act II we learn that Wonka is rather malevolent, and are seemingly supposed to find humor in watching children meet their grisly ends.

And whereas I loved nearly every song in Hairspray upon catching a pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle, almost none of Shaiman & Wittman’s musical concoctions for Charlie caught my ear. Holdover songs from the 1972 film—“The Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination”—were greatly superior, with only the closing “The View From Here” notably pleasing.

The best part of the show were the Oompa Loompas, with clever choreography—by Joshua Bergasse—to portray their diminutive size.

But while first “Oompa Loompa Song” in Act II was a delight, several additional ones began to wear out their welcome. Or at least amplified how little else was truly entertaining me.

I’m not one to say all humor need be PC, but it seems odd that a show celebrating a chocolate factory would overtly mock a fat kid, while also belittling the other children on the Wonka tour (including Veruca Salt, bubble gum loving Vi and the technology addicted Mike).

Adults don’t fare much better, with only Charlie’s kindly Grandpa Joe (James Young) and overwrought mother (Amanda Rose) coming off well.

Perhaps some of the pure imagination of Dahl’s 1964 book made this oddness work better, but the darker elements don't come across well onstage, especially without any great music.

I think you get my point, and even so, I’m not trying to convince you to hate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a stage musical.

But it almost never made me crack a smile, and even came to annoy.

Who would’ve thought a show seemingly so steeped in childhood mirth would be so largely devoid of charm, joy and sweetness.


No comments: