By Sandi Durell
Pity the chocolate maker who gives you the scoop of what’s to happen at the very beginning letting you know it’s time to retire! Christian Borle, as Willie Wonka and as the Candy Man, isn’t even that perversely sinister a character – the one we knew and despised so well! He’s tongue in cheek mean and boring!
This Warner Bros. production is a well -oiled machine, orchestrated for the kiddies but for adults, it’s just bitter chocolate.
With a book by David Greig, with the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman (composer) and co-lyricist Scott Wittman, based on Roald Dahl’s surreal children’s novel, much has gone awry with the weird humor and horror that now becomes a fudged version of itself.
As the story goes, poor little Charlie Bucket (Jake Ryan Flynn at the performance I attended), is a nice kid living in squalor with his Mom (underused Emily Padgett) and his grandparents – a chorus of four – neatly tucked into the upper level bed of a metal bar contraption with hanging pieces of necessaries (reminds me of an art installation I once saw) with some dilapidated furniture that serves as their home. No money, eating used cabbage, Charlie is obsessed with scoring one of the five golden tickets tucked into the Wonka chocolate bars worldwide, promising a tour of the old Wonka factory. But at the Candy Man’s goodie shop, he gets nothing but nasty give and take remarks from Borle, looking creepy with longish hair and a receding hairline.
Charlie, a good-natured little hero, eventually scores his golden ticket and, along with his loving and loveable Grandpa Joe, who wears a pot on his head as a hat (played by Paul Slade Smith at the performance I attended – usually played by John Rubinstein), accompanies him on the journey meeting the four bad seeds who also scored tickets. As Willy Wonka leads them down the sweet path of disaster, we witness fat Bavarian Augustus Gloop and his necklace of hanging sausages (F. Michael Haynie) with his mother (Kathy Fitzgerald) “More of Him to Love” – along with Russian I Vant ballerina Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle) “When Veruca Says” – and doting dad (Ben Crawford); bubble gum chewing teen Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison) and camera-snapping Dad (Alan H. Green) “Queen of Pop;” next is Idaho TV addicted hacker Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” and the clever “Vidiots” accompanied by his mother, the always hysterical Jackie Hoffman as a tipsy 50s throwback.
One by one, the four monster kids are eliminated in rather gruesome ways . . . Augustus down the fudge shoot; Violet blows up like an oversized blueberry and explodes; Veruca, vanting a larger than life squirrel, is torn into pieces by the nut-sorting squirrels; Mike shrinks to nothing more than a small doll sized character in a major display of large TV screens, more easily subdued by his now happier mom. Needless to say, Charlie comes out the Big Winner as the kind, imaginative kid.
The standouts are the Oompa Loompas (living puppets – by Basil Twist – with human heads operated by an incredibly talented group of performers in black garb on their knees) who bring out the laughs and fun elements in a series of Oompa Loompa songs.
The music from the original 1971 Gene Wilder movie, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley –“Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man” are the notable songs. You have to wait till the very end to hear the one emotionally driven terrific “The View From Here” (by Shaiman and Wittman), as the rest are merely serviceable remnants.
Although I know Christian Borle as a top notch actor (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!), he fails to impress in this misbegotten role omitting the edginess and sinister menacing character I expected. Who’s at fault? David Greig’s book? Director Jack O’Brien’s interpretation?
Perhaps more pure imagination would have served this family musical better. But, instead, we are left with a bittersweet taste . . . this could have been more.
Video/Production design by Jeff Sugg is impressive with Lighting by Japhy Weideman; Set design by Mark Thompson (also costumes) is hi-tech remarkable. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse is well executed.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre West 46 Street, Run time: 2 hrs, 30 min.