Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
David Grieg (Book); Marc Shaiman (Music); Scott Wittiman & Marc Shaiman (Lyrics)
|Henry Boshart & Noah Weisberg|
Currently at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, there are two one-act musicals appearing, both under the same title as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – or at least it feels that way sitting through each. The first, mildly entertaining act is a set-up for the much better, darkly humorous second act, with that first act’s best lines coming from four octogenarian grandparents stuck in a tiny bed together. As a musical, the only truly memorable song in the first act is the opener, The Candy Man – that being because many of us remember it as Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 hit that came from the 1971 movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As it turns out, that song and the other three songs of the evening that are even close to being interesting are not from the composer and lyricist of this 2017 Broadway musical (Marc Shaiman, music, who also collaborated with Scott Wittiman on lyrics), but are instead all from that original movie and are by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. If not for some fantastically funny puppetry in that second act and several well-deserved, devilishly hilarious disasters for four, over-grown, over-spoiled brats, the entire evening would have been not much better than a yawn.
|Noah Weisberg & Company|
With his opening number, “The Candy Man,” Willie Wonka announces, “I make chocolate ... the greatest invention of the history of the world.” But it seems the young-looking Willie is not all he appears and is in fact very old and very tired of making chocolate in the formidable factory overlooking the town. Willie is out to find his successor and creates a contest to draw five potential inheritors to a first-time-ever tour of the now-dormant factory. His placing five golden tickets in five chocolate bars (with a promised grand prize among the five of free chocolate for life) causes a world-wide “Wonkamania,” with kids and their parents globally emptying candy shelves of the chocolate that is now once again being madly manufactured by Wonka’s workers. Willie’s unannounced plan is that the winners are to be invited to the factory for what he has planned as a test of their true characters, with a plan that the last one left standing (literally) will become his successor as The Candyman.
Noah Weisberg’s Willie is a mixture of a carnival huckster, mad scientist, and song-and-dance man. He sings his numbers not with great Broadway wow but with his own twist of flash and flair that makes it easy for us to listen and play along with him, even when most of his numbers are not all that interesting music-wise. And while he is by appearance a squeaky-clean-looking character, his inside morals are certainly questionable as he mostly shrugs off to dismayed parents when their kids one-by-one fail his tempting character tests (and totally disappear). But in the end, his Willie still somehow convinces us that his intentions are good – especially when it comes to our young hero, Charlie.
Youngster Charlie Bucket lives in a barely-standing shack with his impoverished mom (a laundress about to be out of work) and his four grandparents, who appear never to leave the bed they share on the second, wobbly floor. Charlie is candy-obsessed and loves hanging out at a local chocolate store, run by none other than a disguised Willie Wonka. Charlie is a dreamer like his Grandpa Joe (James Young) who constantly recalls imaginatively when he was a travel agent for Mr. Lewis and Mr. Clark, on a rhino hunt with Mr. Livingston, or with Mr. Custer in his dying moments at Little Big Horn. Grandpa Joe sings with a gleam in his eye, “Charlie, you and I make something out of nothing,” something Charlie’s hard-working but mostly penny-less mom (Amanda Rose) warns, “Charlie, it’s not good daydreaming about something if it can’t come true.”
Charlie loves his mom, but he is inspired by and is out of the same ilk as his Grandpa. So imagine and dream Charlie does (played opening night by Henry Boschart with Henry sharing the part with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood). Charlie sends requests in a wistful song (“A Letter from Charlie Bucket”) and a magically flying paper plane to Mr. Wonka for sweet presents for the ones he loves most (licorice shoe laces and ice cream that never melts for his mom, marshmallow pillows for his grandparents). Henry Boshart, fresh off his tour of Fun Home, brings vocal freshness, attractive energy and enthusiasm, and a winning smile and personality – completely selling himself to us (and in the end, to Willie) as a kid whose imagination is almost as big as his heart and the one deserving to be a candy king.
The other kids we meet during Act One – all played by adults – have some common qualities just the opposite of everything we see in Charlie: spoiled, obnoxious, stuck-up, ego-centric, bad manners – just to name a few of the more obvious ones. They are each introduced with their equally bizarre and overall ridiculously despicable parents as they each find a ‘golden ticket’ in four production numbers, all mostly forgettable by the time each song-and dance ends. There is the overly obese from his mountainous intakes of Bavarian sausages, Augustus Gloop (a big burping Matt Wood); a self-centered Russian ballerina covered in pink furs and frills, Veruca Salt (a squealing Jessica Cohen with always raised nose and on tippy toes); a bubble-gun-smacking, self-proclaimed diva (“Queen of Pop” Brynn Williams); and screen-staring, gamer and hacker Mike Teevee (a scowling, belligerent Daniel Quadrino). There is some humor in the exaggerations depicted by each during their introductions, but the real laughs and most inventive ideas of Jack O’Brien’s direction come in the second half when each meets her/his final demise as they fail to heed Willie’s warnings about such things as chocolate waterfalls or giant, nut-sorting squirrels.
If there is one reason that truly makes an outing to this touring production worth while, it is the second act’s appearance in five of the eight numbers by the “Oompa Loompas,” a chorus line of three-foot-high workers who make all of Willie Wonka’s confectionaries. The puppet and illusion design of Basil Twist (which won him a Drama Desk award in 2017) transforms the Loompas’ full-size handlers into these midget-size, dancing, singing stars of the evening, sending the audience into loud howls of laughter and long rounds of appreciative applause. Their crazy leaps, kick lines, and tumbles as well as their munchkin-sounding singing are only made funnier by the red-mop-topped heads of the real people who are otherwise diminutive puppets. It is with their short-legged dancing that Joshua Bergasse’s choreography finds its best steps of the evening.
Along with James Young’s winning characterization of Grandpa Joe, the one-liners afforded the other three grandparents by book writer David Grieg are an ongoing thread of giggles. From their crowded bed where it appears they have no legs (part of Mark Thompson’s pop-up-like, storybook scenic design), the oldsters offer forth such numerous quickies like “Hope we don’t die in our sleep” during a series of mutual ‘good nights’ and “Are we still here?” when waking in the morning. Claire Neumann is Grandma Georgina, Jennifer Jill Malenke is Grandma Josephine, and Joel Newsome is Grandpa George.
If not for the Oompa Loompas and the dark, grisly, but totally hilarious exits of the four obnoxious kids, this touring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might not be worth the visit, even given the fine performances by Willie, Charlie, and the grandparents. The music rarely rises above mediocre and the first act is a near sleeper. But, stay awake; and the second act becomes a true winner, almost as fun as the evening’s optical-illusion-packed, multi-layered, and stage-surrounding projections by Jeff Sugg – the final and well-worth reason to grab a bar of chocolate (you will be craving one) and head to the Golden Gate Theatre for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Rating: 3.5 E
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues through May 12, 2019 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus