Theater review by David Cote
Strangers with candy should be avoided, our parents warn. Roald Dahl urges us to grab the sugary goods—but be prepared for the consequences. Families who accept the treats currently proferred at the Lunt-Fontanne, though, are in for a rough time on Broadway. Joyless, shapeless and grating, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a stale Necco wafer of a musical.
Where did such promising material—gut-renovated after its 2013 London debut—go wrong? Let’s start at the top: Eccentric sweets manufacturer Willy Wonka (Christian Borle in fey bully mode) saunters on at the very beginning and tells us he’s on a mission to find his replacement. Farewell, dramatic tension! In the movie, the Wonka legend is built up so that when Gene Wilder appears, it’s a genuine thrill. Here Borle encourages us to loathe Wonka at our earliest convenience; and we know he’s going to favor plucky poor-kid Charlie (Ryan Foust, alternating with two other boys).
Wonka then disguises himself as a store proprietor and warbles “The Candy Man,” Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s dreamy ditty from the 1971 film. That number and the rapturous “Pure Imagination” are little oases in the desert of cheap, cynical pastiche that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman crank out all night.
The limping first act is riddled with countless missteps and badly placed songs, sludgy narrative movement and jokes that go splat.
Act Two at least has the benefit of seeing the nasty children who’ve won a guided tour of Wonka’s factory get their comeuppance. One blessing in the production is adult actors portraying the bad tots: obese Bavarian Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie); Russian oligarch brat Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle); hip-hop starlet Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison); and internet-addled sociopath Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella). Another fleetingly fun element is the handling of Wonka’s cautionary-tale-singing Oompa Loompas, rendered as two-foot-high human-head puppets by the inspired Basil Twist.
But for the most part, Jack O’Brien directs this dull, clunky adaptation of the book and movie with none of the wit of the former nor the dreamy wonder of the latter. Maybe kids will enjoy the gaudy design and veneer of sassy satire, but when you bite down, there’s only empty shell. Younger audiences can cheer, but adults are bound to conclude that Charlie is like what happens with an Everlasting Gobstopper: lots of sucking.
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Book by David Greig. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. Directed by Jack O’Brien. With Christian Borle. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
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