Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is something of a, if not poisoned, then loaded chalice to take to Broadway.
For one, you have to contend with thousands of individually rendered memories of Roald Dahl’s book about poverty-stricken Charlie Bucket’s golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s eponymous factory, and his life-changing adventure there.
Then there is Gene Wilder’s defining incarnation as Wonka in the famous 1971 movie (and Johnny Depp’s less-defining Wonka in Tim Burton’s version), and so Christian Borle, without a note being sung in this production, should be congratulated for bravery for taking on the role.
There is no better Broadway “name” for it, as anyone who saw Borle in his Tony-winning role as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher will attest. Like Wilder, Borle can go from soufflé-light to scary-dark, comedy to sweetness, and arch to bonkers, in a blink. He is a little more well-behaved than this reporter had anticipated. Still, unpredictable, kindly, and sporadically terrifying, he sings beautifully too, including a tender and restrained interpretation of “Pure Imagination.”
But why does this latest production, a production first seen in London, feel too small, too meager, and not magic enough? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory needs to go big, surely, or not at all. The modesty of this production, attractive in smaller theaters, perhaps, feels a little lost on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, even with Doug Besterman and Marc Shaiman’s lush orchestrations and arrangements.
A pressing narrative problem presents itself in Act One, which spends far too long emphasizing how good and upstanding Charlie (an excellent Jake Ryan Flynn, who shares the role with Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell) is compared to the other children, which is true, but still…
There is Charlie’s careworn, worked-to-the-bone, widowed and still-grieving mother (Emily Padgett), and his four grandparents permanently stuck in bed, reached atop a precarious structure in the eaves of their dilapidated house, where Paul Slade Smith’s wonderful, glass-three-quarters-empty Grandpa George immediately reaches for the obituaries section of the newspaper.
Charlie’s quest for the golden ticket takes the span of Act One, which is a lot of lead-up to a well-known narrative payoff to take Charlie and Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein: a great mix of zestiness and old man growl) off to the factory.
To subvert all the Bucket-centric moral certitude, we at least are introduced to the other odious-for-one-reason-or-another children Charlie is visiting the factory with, in the hope of winning a special prize at the end. Some of the children have had their various vanities and behavioral issues transformed to be era-specific.
The German Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie) is addicted to sausages. Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle) has been transformed into the child of a Russian oligarch (Ben Crawford wearing the best fur coat on Broadway). Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison) is a social media-obsessed tween who is all about increasing her brand, and Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) is now as obsessed by his phone and tablet as by the TV itself. The songs sung by him (“What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’ and “Vidiots”) and his mother (the wonderful Jackie Hoffman) are the most subversive in the show—genuinely angry screeds about the corrosive nature of media on young minds and the dangerous dumbing down of America. Mike’s detachment from society is angry, violent—he is a not-too-distant cousin of the frightening lead character in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Hoffman, with tenderness alongside her own sly sense of mischief, well encapsulates his mother: at the end of her tether, concerned for her son, and also damaged, scared of him herself, and past caring. His fate may prove her perverse liberation.
The gruesome ends for all these children—so vivid in the book and on film—are not as vivid as they should be on stage. One wonders how much money was left for sets, right from the first sighting of Wonka’s amazing edible landscape, which doesn’t look that amazing, through to the oddly staged moment of Gloop’s dispatch. Or is it the thought of children in the audience that has induced the caution? They have read it all in the book, so surely not.
Some of the false economies work well: Alan H. Green as Mr. Beauregarde literally ends up covered in the remains of his daughter; Veruca’s nutty end is spiked with a bravura piece of ballet, and Hoffman, of course, makes the scene-stealing best out of Mike’s end.
The financial and spatial restrictions of live staging make some of the on-stage temerity understandable, but the drama of the children’s fates is such a vital part of Chocolate Factory, one would have hoped for a more vivid staging. One of the cleverest sequences comes in Wonka’s course of invisible obstacles, including a wind machine, which every impatient child besides Charlie—most physically Michael Wartella’s Mike—comes a cropper in.
As for the Oompa Loompas, the little workers who aid Wonka and sing the dark Greek choruses for each errant child, the creative decision has been taken not to use actors below average height but to use full-size actors in black bodysuits kneeling down, their face atop a puppet body, which they manipulate with their hands.
Joshua Bergasse’s choreography of them is excellent—and perhaps the decision was taken not to use actors below average height out of political or cultural sensitivity—but it just feels so odd. Not giving the Oompa Loompas a human shape and form unnecessarily dehumanizes them. It may be an ingenious piece of choreographed illusion, but why not just employ little people actors?
The show is far from a disaster, just far too timid. Borle and Flynn are charming flipsides of the same quirky coin, and as compadres are lovely to watch—even if their final glass lift journey, which modestly raises them from the ground before just as modestly bringing back them back down, seems to speak more generally to this cautious, not-outrageous-enough production. There a critically lacking wonder and magic here—and Charlie and Wonka deserve buckets of both.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, New York City. Book tickets here.