The night I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the new musical based on Roald Dahl’s novel, the theatre was packed with moms and dads with little kids in tow. All of them seemed to know the story from the films, (one that starred Gene Wilder and another with Johnny Depp) and when certain key characters appeared on stage, they giggled and laughed and applauded (one little girl in front of me actually cried, but once she realized these were actors playing roles and not really fat boys, mean-mouthed mamas, and other bizarre creatures, she seemed to have a fine time). I, who have never seen either film, found this musical version oddly sweet and gooey, but David Greig’s book I found more Dull than Dahl.
As a result, despite star Christian Borle’s game effort to inject charm into the characters of Willie Wonka and the Candy Man, the long first act didn’t offer me much to cheer about. Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who did a nice job on the score to “Smash”, the TV series, had themselves a hit with their musical version of Hairspray. But presently the four songs from the film, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly, walk off with honors as the best of the evening, as they’ve been resurrected for this outing.
There are two excellent actors doing their best to inject energy and hilarity into the roles of Grandpa and Mrs. Teevee but for the most part John Rubenstein and Jackie Hoffman only serve to remind us how wonderful he was as the original Pippin and she was as Maude P. Dilly in the last revival of On The Town. They both have their moments here, but their material does not cut the mustard.
Three young boys share the role of Charlie, and an extraordinary tot named Ryan Foust played him on my night. The youngster carries most of the first act because after Christian Borle practically disappears, most of the magic is in the hands of the boy, the special effects, and the lighting. The second act improves noticeably for Mr. Borle comes into his own and the Oompa Loompas arrive, diminutives played by 8 red-wigged real-live ladies who perform some very tricky choreography with great esprit. Their opening number, “The Oompa Loompa Song” is one of the lively Bricusse-Newley numbers, but Shaiman and Wittman finally get in the groove with four lively ditties, which give Christian Borle a chance to remind us why we think of him as a genuine musical comedy star.
Mark Thompson’s scenic and costume designs, when placed together in some of the ensemble numbers, give us a look at what an expensive Broadway musical should look like. The glass elevator that takes Charlie and Willie Wonka into the world of the Imagination is sleek and once again the show looks worthy of a large stage like the one in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The slight story involves poor Charlie’s prayer that he will win one of the five golden tickets that are hidden in chocolate bars from the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory, and once that miracle occurs, he doesn’t dare to hope for the Grand Prize which can go to only one of the five winners.
Does he win it? That would be a spoiler and you’ll have to find out not only who wins it, but what it is. Just be prepared for a long wait before you get to enter the factory in Act Two, so you can judge for yourself what all the fuss is about.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.