Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Do you enjoy seeing children maimed? A character asks that question near the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and it might as well be the tagline for this gleefully gruesome new show at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It's not so much about a magical chocolatier, but the world's most creative serial killer. American Psycho, meet a marzipan psycho.
There was always an element of darkness in Roald Dahl's original children's book, but it was never quite so explicit as it is here. Like the book, the musical tells the story of Charlie Bucket (Ryan Foust, Jake Ryan Flynn, and Ryan Sell switch off in the role throughout the week), a young boy so poor his family can only afford to buy him one chocolate bar a year, on his birthday. This makes his odds impossibly long when reclusive candy manufacturer Willy Wonka (Christian Borle) issues five bars wrapped in golden tickets entitling their finders to a peek inside his factory.
Predictably, four of the tickets go to the most spoiled kids on earth: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie), greedy Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), prideful Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison), and indolent Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella). Through a miracle (or slight of hand) Charlie finds the last ticket. He and his elderly Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein) join the other kids and their chaperones for a grand tour of the factory led by Wonka himself. Naturally, we are meant to root for the humble and honest Charlie (who is the only character played by an actual child) over these pampered brats.
It's a fun story, but does it sing? It did for Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse, who penned the score to the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder as a poetry-spouting candy dandy. While produced to promote a new brand of chocolate from the Quaker Oats Company, it nevertheless spawned a handful of great songs and the everlasting affection of a multigenerational audience. Conceived in cynicism by its backers, the film was tempered by the sincerity of its artists.
Strike that, reverse it for the stage musical, which is always moving in two opposite directions at once: Incorporating songs from the film, it seems to present itself as earnest entertainment for children and nostalgic adults. David Grieg's caustic book and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's pastiche score, on the other hand, feels like a beast with much sharper talons.
Naturally, the children are as grotesque as ever, with a few updates: Mike is glued to his iPad, gum enthusiast Violet pops and locks, and Veruca is a Russian princess. Shaiman and Wittman have written each child a number to give us a sense of their background and awfulness: Haynie has a lovely yodel on the Bavarian minstrel number, "More of Him to Love."
Unfortunately, Charlie doesn't seem much better when we first meet him: "The Wonka Whipple Scrumptious Fudge Mallow Delight is the best chocolate bar ever made, if you don’t include the Wonka Toffee Surprise, which I don’t because, even though it’s amazing, it’s not really a bar. It’s more of a ganache," he says, sounding more like a foodie than a starving kid. Grieg goes for a cheap laugh and in the process, undercuts our sympathy for his title character.
The show gets considerably better in the second act, when it becomes the Christian Borle show. Borle exudes a manic genius that fits the eccentric candy industrialist. He works up a sweat in his song-and-dance and keeps us constantly howling with Wonka's beautifully timed shade. Only Jackie Hoffman (who plays Mike's boozy mother) ever comes close to matching Borle's disturbing hilarity.
Borle can't save everything though, like a painfully awkward rendition of "Pure Imagination," which he delivers while standing in a chocolate room that looks more like a terrarium filled with Astroturf and tinsel. This, we are told, is paradise.
As you might have guessed, Mark Thompson's sets leave much to be desired, managing to both take up valuable stage space while adding little to the scene. The entire first act takes place inside several giant concentric purple rings, a plum vortex sucking the life out of director Jack O'Brien's staging. Thompson is somewhat more successful with his costumes: a Juicy Couture tracksuit for Violet, a full-length fur coat for Veruca's oligarch daddy (a wonderfully dour Ben Crawford). Japhy Weideman's churning lights and Andrew Keister's tinny sound give us the feeling of being in a cavernous factory, while Basil Twist brings the magic with his terrifying puppetry.
O'Brien and choreographer Joshua Bergasse save their best work for the Oompa Loompas, Wonka's miniature (and presumably non-union) workforce imported from a faraway land. Played by orange-wigged members of the ensemble on their knees, they high kick and sashay while dispensing digestible morals. The stage lights up with joy and celebration when they are present. Of course, this chorus of Chucky dolls only ever appears after one of the children has died.
Charlie is rife with such candy-coated poison. "Chocolate! Chocolate," traveling grocer Mrs. Green (Kyle Taylor Parker) calls out while hawking her Wonka bars in the first act, "Rots your teeth and makes you fat!" This time, with nothing to sell but itself, Charlie is temperamentally the opposite of the 1971 film that, however delightful, was always a glorified candy advertisement (Dahl disavowed the film shortly after its release).
That doesn't mean Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will delight literary purists. Dahl wrote his story with young readers in mind, but we seriously question if this musical is for children, especially when we see the disturbed faces of small audience members who have just witnessed two hours, 30 minutes of kids (perhaps exaggerated versions of themselves) perishing in violent industrial accidents.
No, what Grieg, Shaiman, Wittman, and O'Brien have created is a punk rock variation on a beloved family classic. Having the cajones to put that on Broadway deserves some respect, which is why it’s so disappointing when they negate it all with a saccharine and forgettable wrap-up ballad celebrating creativity, "The View From Here." I don't know what one sees from a great glass elevator, but from the audience of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, you can see a musical that doesn't know what it wants to be.