Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When the 2013 Sam Mendes directed stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first opened in London, the show was well received and ran for more than three years. In fact, it currently holds the record for the highest weekly gross of any production in London’s West End. Once it closed in 2017, the show moved to Broadway, but there were changes.

Several alterations resulted with the removal of characters (a mysterious tramp, Charlie’s father), there was a change of setting, a different open and close, and some of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs from the popular 1971 film were added to the new Scott Wittman/Marc Shaiman score. Plus, Jack O’Brien took over director duties. The result was mixed reviews at best and a closure after only nine months. But despite the Broadway loss, the show has done remarkably well while touring, proving once again that what doesn’t always work on the Great White Way can do gangbusters regionally. The production now on tour and playing at ASU Gammage until June 16 is the Jack O’Brien version.

Due to the enormous popularity of the Roald Dahl book and the ‘71 movie (perhaps less so with the later Johnny Depp version), it’s probable that almost everyone going in knows the plot and is already familiar with the outcomes. “Chocolate,” Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg) informs at the opening of the show, “Is the greatest invention in the history of the world.” Curiously, a plot point that was only revealed at the end of the film and came as a wonderful surprise actually begins the show. Wonka is looking for an heir to take charge of his famous factory, and the way to do that is to arrange a global contest for potential inheritors. Five golden tickets are hidden in Wonka bars around the world. Whoever is lucky enough to buy a bar with a hidden ticket will be invited to tour the factory with Wonka as their guide. Once there, the eccentric factory owner will make a decision.

Those four annoying kids, the spoiled brat Veruca (Jessica Cohen), the overstuffed sausage loving Augustus (Matt Wood), the snarky Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), and the anything but a shrinking Violet (Brynn Williams) are all there, ready for their downfall once they step out of line during the factory tour, while the good-hearted and dirt-poor Charlie Bucket (played at certain performances by either Henry Boshart, Collin Jeffrey, or Rueby Wood) and his Grandpa Joe (James Young) obey the rules – for the most part – and enjoy the ride.

The striking element about the production is the design. Individual sets, such as Charlie’s house, the candy store, and the individual areas of the factory itself, slide on and off, but it’s Jeff Sugg’s screen projections and the technology behind the theatre’s electronic frames within frames that grab attention. During act one, a steam train with smoke passes in the background behind Charlie’s shack, and when Charlie’s mom makes a wish and blows it into the air, a shooting star flies overhead as if carrying that wish to its destination. These moments help create a feeling of something magical occurring, but it’s the lavish (and expensive looking) explosion of color that comes in a virtual kaleidoscopic array and the following animation displayed during the second act within the factory walls that audiences will remember.

With a running time of 2 hours plus a twenty-minute intermission, the show is structured so that we never get to see the inside of the factory until the second act, which is another curious narrative element considering that what everyone is waiting for doesn’t come into play until the second half. The first act covers the worldwide chase for the golden tickets and who will win them while circling back to little Charlie’s home life in the derelict shack near the railway arches that he shares with his single-parent mother (Amanda Rose) and his four bedridden grandparents. “Are we still here?” asks a bewildered relative when all four wake up.

The energy and invention of Joshua Bergasse’s choreography are, as expected, first class, while Noah Weisberg’s Willy Wonka is mercifully less creepy and not quite so dangerous as Gene Wilder’s famous big screen portrayal. The character is considerably more humorous, as is the show itself, but with a much needed Roald Dahl styled black comic edge. When Mike Teavee gets impatient with the factory tour, he declares to his host, “Can’t you just kill another kid so I can get to the prizes?” And when Mike’s mother (Madeleine Doherty) hears the Oompa Loompas begin another tune, she cries, “Those little people are singing again. That’s never a good sign.” Though perhaps the best observation, and an appropriate one for members of the press in attendance on opening night, comes from Wonka himself when he says, “No one gets back to normal after they’ve been on TV,” then adds to the audience, “That’s a well-known fact.”

Having not seen how things looked across the pond, it’s difficult to make comparisons between the different productions, but two things are clear: name recognition and familiar tunes clearly make all the difference. Regional audiences are drawn by the name of the musical alone, and it helps that among the new, less memorable songs written for the show that popular classics such as The Candy Man, I’ve got a Golden Ticket, and the magical Pure Imagination are there to elevate matters. Without the emphasis on the attractive electronic visuals, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would seem like a box of plain confectionery. Changes and updates are usually intended for the better, but it does make you wonder what it was about the original Sam Mendes production that garnered the praise, the lengthy run, and the awards, while the newer reworked Broadway version closed early and received zero Tony nominations.

The national touring production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 16

Pictures Courtesy of Joan Markus

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