Whether you couldn't put down the classic book or can hum along to all the hits from the iconic movie, most adults remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from our childhoods. Producing a new musical version of such a popular story might sound risky, but Warner Brothers took that challenge and ran with it, with a Broadway production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that opened this past April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. There are definitely a couple of things you should know about this dark tale before deciding to take the kiddos, but all in all, the show received a well-earned round of wild applause from children and adults alike.
When my ten-year-old heard that we were going to see this musical, she was thrilled. Like so many kids, she loves the book and the Gene Wilder film—although she was decidedly not a fan of the Johnny Depp version. My daughter tends to be a little, ahem, rigid about her preferences, so I wondered if she’d be bothered by yet another variation of the plot. (Spoiler: she wasn’t.)
While the new show may not satisfy hard-core purists looking for a plot totally faithful to the book, families happy with a lively and entertaining rendition of the candy-filled tale, with lots of singing and dancing, are likely to have a great time. There are certainly some tributes to the original movie, since the performance opens with a wistful version of “Candy Man,” reprised later in a livelier version. Christian Borle’s performance as Willy Wonka is undoubtedly the highlight, although his part is written so that he also plays the candy store owner. It’s quite a suspension of disbelief that no one recognizes him, and that after forty years in hiding, he still appears to only be around forty himself. (Maybe sugar is actually good for the skin?) Still, Borle has a maniacal energy that is reminiscent of Wilder’s portrayal, and he successfully captures the spirit of the dark storyline that pits children against each other. While all the performances are impressive, Borle carries the show, making every line—and he has many—memorable.
Three children alternate playing Charlie Bucket, depending on the day. We saw Jake Ryan Flynn, who did a fantastic job, although his part isn’t written to be quite as sympathetic as it was in the book or original movie. The other “kids” who win golden tickets are played by young adults, but remain those over-the-top characters you love to hate, with some alterations in storylines. Augustus Gloop’s character is probably the most true to the original role; he’s a very portly boy with a love for sausages and everything stereotypically German. My daughter found his character hilarious, but I was relieved to find it wasn’t because of Gloop’s cartoonishly portrayed weight, so much as F. Michael Haynie’s beatific expressions and love of sausages.
In this production, Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle) is a Russian ballerina—still with a doting tycoon for a father—while Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison) is the self-proclaimed “Queen of Pop” with a stage father, who is played to great comic effect by Alan H. Green. Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) is a bratty, video-obsessed teen with a mother (Jackie Hoffman) who manages to make her medicated-by-choice state highly entertaining. (Most of these jokes go over children’s heads.) My daughter’s favorites in the wild cast of characters were Violet and her hilarious father, whose bewilderment upon his daughter turning into a blueberry was so funny that it earned him cheers from the audience.
Charlie’s family also provides comic relief in the first act, and, as might be expected, Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein) is nothing short of excellent. But the real stars, at least as far as younger viewers are concerned, are the Oompa Loompas. I wondered how they would be portrayed on the stage, and I think the production's solution is extremely creative. Kids clapped and cheered every time the Oompa Loompas appeared on stage, and the love was warranted, because the actors had very physically demanding roles.
The show has a mix of old and new tunes, which keeps the audience on their toes. In addition to “Candy Man,” other original songs include “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “Pure Imagination,” and “The Oompa Loompa Song.” The new numbers are fun, although not quite as memorable or iconic; but then again, the bar is incredibly high.
Borle received a standing ovation when he appeared for his curtain call, as did the show overall. The audience—a mix of adults and children—seemed thrilled with the performance. My daughter, who as a young New Yorker can be a little blasé, clapped wildly and whistled in appreciation—and she had lots of company.
Be warned that this is a dark version of an already dark book. While it’s clear that the deaths are staged, very young or very literal kids may be looking for more of an explanation. That said, I wouldn’t recommend this show for anyone younger than a mature six or seven (and children under four actually aren't permitted to attend). The show runs two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission, so also keep that in mind when determining its suitability.
Want your own golden tickets to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway? Purchase them here!