Believe it or not, the characters in the musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do not actually enter the titular chocolate factory until the very end of act one. That’s right, over an hour in to this perplexing adaptation there is nary an Oompa Loompa in sight. Willy Wonka sings about a world of pure imagination, and imagination is required to enjoy this show, which opened last night at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre after a brief run on Broadway in 2017.
Based on the novel by Roald Dahl with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the show opens with a rendition of “The Candy Man,” a song originally written for the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. This sets the tone for an adaptation that leans heavily on its source material without adding much of anything new to the well-known story. There are some minor tweaks for the modern era—iPhones are seen and social media is mentioned, although not consistently enough to really change anything—but otherwise the story is fairly well-preserved from Dahl’s book and the film. “It must be believed to be seen,” Wonka sings repeatedly, and in fact, only pre-existing belief that this show is good will lead anyone to see it as decent.
Ultimately, this production has three major downfalls. The first is the strange choice to cast Charlie Bucket (Rueby Wood on opening night) as an actual child, but have adults play the rest of the golden ticket winners. Likely a choice made for the sake of practicality and not wanting to deal with the complicated logistics of having multiple principle roles played by minors, it comes across as distracting. Either all of the kids should be kids, or they should all be adults. While the young adults playing Charlie’s compatriots are certainly styled to look as young as possible, it is still a bizarre juxtaposition that takes some of the already limited magic out of the tale.
The second is the pacing, which makes very little sense. First, we meet Charlie, who lives in a tiny, ramshackle home with his widowed, overworked mother (Amanda Rose) and his four grandparents. His Grandpa Joe (James Young) often tells stories of when he worked at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and young Charlie, an aspiring inventor, is obsessed. Once the golden ticket contest is announced, far too much time is spent introducing all of the winners. What should be one musical number is instead four separate ones. There’s Augustus Goop (Matt Wood), a gluttonous Bavarian boy, and Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), a spoiled daughter of a tycoon. Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams) spends all of her time chewing gum and making Instagram and Youtube videos while her father enables her, and Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino) is an aspiring anarchist who obtains his golden ticket by hacking Wonka’s computer system. By the time all four and their parents, along with Charlie and Grandpa Joe, actually meet Willy Wonka (Noah Weisberg, who is better than the material he has been given here), it is time for intermission, and the audience is left wondering why it is taking so long to get to the actually interesting and iconic part of the story.
The third issue with the show, however, is that once inside the chocolate factory, the magic is still lacking. Several scenes take place in empty rooms, and glimpses of the bright and shiny world that everyone remembers from the movie are few and far between. When Veruca is literally torn apart by squirrels in a gruesome ballet, it is the most memorable moment of the musical because it is so comically horrifying to watch that you will hope there are no children in the audience to be traumatized. The Oompa Loompas are amusing and fairly creative, played by crouched over ensemble members with their heads on top of small puppets, but this is pretty much where the delights end, aside from some strong performances. Weisberg in particular has excellent timing and has found a version of the quirky, quietly diabolical Wonka that is different from Gene Wilder’s iconic performance while still in keeping with the spirit of the part. The music is forgettable, and despite the too-long build up to get to the chocolate factory, once there the action, directed by Jack O’Brien, still manages to be mostly anticlimactic. Although the gruesome fate of greedy Augustus Goop should be a lesson in not daring to want more, a world of pure imagination this musical is not, and those hoping for a satisfyingly sweet experience would be better off looking elsewhere.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through April 14th. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. After Los Angeles, the show will play San Francisco, San Diego, Costa Mesa, and other cities. For more information and to purchase tickets for future tour dates, click here.