The following review is based on the March 27th performance of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, which featured Rueby Wood as Charlie Bucket (the role is shared with Henry Boshart and Collin Jeffery).
While Roald Dahl lived long enough to see some of his literary masterpieces become films, including “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in 1971 and “The Witches” in 1990, he perhaps never foresaw that there would be not just more films, but four stage musicals in his name: “Matilda the Musical,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and of course “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opened on the West End in 2013 and closed on Broadway after a nine-month run in January 2018.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is now touring across the United States, with its latest stop being at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre (through April 14th). And while there are still some minor issues with David Greig’s updated book adaptation, and perhaps an occasional overreliance on digital screens to highlight Wonka’s psychedelic factory, the show is still highly recommended. It sates audiences with its inventive approach as well as score (by Marc Shaiman) and lyrics (Shaiman and Scott Wittman) that pay tribute to the story’s legacy with “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination,” while adding fresh songs to the chocolate mix.
It should be noted that certain changes, such as the fact that adults portray the children’s parts with the exception of Charlie, whose dad is also missing in action, and that Willy Wonka is incognito as a chocolate shop owner at the outset, do not negatively impact the overall enjoyment. Rather, one can make the argument that these alterations augment the production as a worthwhile and sometimes dark-humored entertainment spectacle which pleasingly captures the inscrutable and anything-that-can-happen quirky spirit that binds its timeless characters together.
Deserving much of the credit behind the scenes is Director Jack O’Brien, whose direction is smooth and has made for a nostalgic and melodically gratifying show (Musical Supervisor is Nicholas Skilbeck) which builds engagingly with the necessary exposition in Act I before letting loose in an unforgettable second act, when the five Golden Ticket winners and their guardians are led along for the tour of their lives. In addition, Mark Thompson’s scenic and costume design is a technologically savvy dreamscape — spotlighted by Japhy Weideman’s lush lighting design and Andrew Keister’s enveloping sound — though it sometimes feels a little sparse in spots to make room for Jeff Sugg’s projections which are nevertheless top-notch. Last, but not least, the hair, wig, and makeup by Campbell Young Associates personalize the entertaining oddities on stage, the most popular of whom are the Oompa Loompas (Basil Twist is the puppet and illusion specialist), who earn the audience’s laughter and appreciation as they cleverly move to Joshua Bergasse’s taut choreography.
Although it’s virtually impossible to compete with Gene Wilder’s portrayal, Noah Weisberg fills Wonka’s shoes with sartorial flair and unstoppably energetic gusto. Weisberg’s Wonka is zanier and more unpredictable than ever – as we wouldn’t have it any other way – while also being genuinely heartfelt and humorous. His Wonka is able to shift gears in an impressive instant, like in “Strike That, Reverse It,” as he is serious one moment and awesomely goofy the next – never more so than when interacting with his pint-sized, sing-song minions.
Also memorable are the eclectic individuals who, by virtue of their serendipitous Golden Tickets, enter Wonka’s appetizing chocolate abode and go along for the gustatory, prismatic, and oftentimes perilous journey. And surely, if the plot were judged without its subtext, it is one that can get quite morbid, punctuated by Wonka’s uncaring cynicism about the fate of the annoying children who become victims to their unchecked misbehavior and vices. But the beauty of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is that these shocks are subsumed by the farce that exists exclusively in the fantasy of Wonka’s factory, separate from the ultimately uplifting message that good things happen to good people.
Charlie (Rueby Wood), Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose), Grandpa Joe (James Young), along with Grandmas Josephine (Jennifer Jill Malenke) and Georgina (Claire Neumann) and the hysterically jaded Grandpa George (Benjamin Howes) represent an impoverished and unprivileged family who nonetheless strives to be resourceful and optimistic in spite of their meager living conditions. This is inclusive of second-hand, “antique vegetables” which are purchased from the uproarious Mrs. Green (Clyde Voce). Even as an 11-year-old, Charlie has the wisdom to understand when his mom laments not being able to afford a prized Wonka Bar for his birthday. Rueby Wood depicts Charlie with an enthusiastic innocence and has a powerful and poignant singing voice that is especially affecting when he pours his heart out to Wonka during “A Letter from Charlie Bucket.” James Young is similarly gladsome as the quipping Grandpa Joe, who we root for to get out of bed at last and accompany Charlie. If there is one criticism leading up to Charlie’s vindication is that his Golden Ticket reveal happens too abruptly and without the bated-breath suspense like in the original film.
Matt Wood is riotously funny as the red-sweater-clad and red-faced Augustus Gloop, who is undeniably gluttonous as the “Bavarian Beefcake,” and Kathy Fitzgerald is Mrs. Gloop, the enabling mother to a morbidly rotund, yodelling, and sausage-link-loving son. Their number, “More of Him to Love,” is significant for spiritedly introducing the Golden Ticket winners, who are announced in “Breaking News” fashion by Jerry (Joel Newsome) and Cherry (Sarah Bowden). This device is suitably used to modernize the narrative; however, it becomes overused as each successive winner comes into focus.
The reimagined Violet Beauregarde, played by the talented Brynn Williams, deserves categorical praise for not just being a champion gum-chewer, but a “Queen of Pop” Hollywood-wannabe starlet with 50,000 Twitter followers, golden vocals, and dance moves that scintillate. Dressed in a sparkling velour tracksuit, Williams is phenomenal on the veritable dance floor as Mr. Beauregarde (David Samuel) records her every step on his cell phone, hoping it will go viral.
Jessica Cohen’s Veruca Salt, of Russia, is exasperatingly rich and spoiled, multiplied by the power of ten, which makes her eventual exit all the more impactful following a ballet performance featuring her and a group of gargantuan squirrels, which is highly memorable for how satisfyingly strange it is. Cohen admirably commits to her shrieking persona and shines as an expert ballerina. Mr. Salt (Nathaniel Hackmann), too, leaves an impression with his mob boss-esque traits and motivation to buy anything that might placate his out-of-control daughter.
The reinvention of Mike Teavee as a cyber-hacking gamer resonates believably thanks to Daniel Quadrino’s depiction. As a product of Gen Z, Mike is technologically obsessed and essentially lives in his TV-facing chair, where his attention is monopolized and he is spasmodically seized by floodgates of bouncing-off-the-walls energy that is artistically realized by Quadrino’s physics-defying athleticism. Of course, Mike goes out with a cable-kinetic bang, magically shrinking down to the wonderment of the audience and the consternation of Mrs. Teavee, a disconsolate wino stuck in the 1950s and actualized splendidly by Madeleine Doherty.
Finally, the ensemble thrives on the tap-dancing heels of their Oompa Loompas who enlighten attendees about these little people’s far-out origins and get us to hum their anthem song. Just the sight gag of seeing these curiously diminutive beings would be enough, but the performers go the extra mile with an almost sadistic feverishness that is irreverently brilliant.
Overall, the national tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” succeeds on the merit of its preternaturally skilled personnel and particularly the cast, whose delightful characterizations shore up the eccentric voyage into Willy Wonka’s candied lair, more than making up for the adaptation’s few misfires.
For more information about “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the new musical, please visit hollywoodpantages.com