Lesser than the sum of its parts, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sugary confection that has been whipped, glazed and sprinkled in the hope of hiding the empty calories at its hollow centre.
Any degree of disappointment in the production bears no relation to the Australian cast members, who throw themselves into their roles with zesty verve. It is just that the show itself, despite extensive rewriting, beats a trite, simplistic path to an uninspiring end. Not that the show is without glimpses of spectacle and moments of laughter (and occasionally both at the same time) but each of the two acts race their way through a predictable course that leaves little room for charm or surprise.
Having written one of the most instantly infectious Broadway scores of all time for Hairspray, composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman fall well short here, their tuneless contributions completely shown up by 1971 movie hits “Candy Man” and “Pure Imagination.” Some of Wittman and Shaiman’s lyrics are quite amusing, but blaring vocal volumes often undermine the chance for the ear to tune in to what is being sung.
While touring productions are generally under-produced compared to Broadway, scenic design for this version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been greatly enhanced, simply by replacing the sheer dull blue walls seen in the Broadway production with glossy LCD screens, displaying vivid projections by Jeff Sugg. Some of Mark Thompson’s constructed sets are impressively engineered, but they very often look like lone features on an otherwise empty stage rather than parts of a fully integrated scenic design.
Jack O’Brien’s direction includes the curious choice to have the Bucket family as Australians, their shanty home seemingly imported from The Harp in the South. David Grieg’s book has been tweaked to reflect the Aussie influence, with Grandpa Joe (played winningly by National Treasure Tony Sheldon) scoring a slew of fair dinkum new tall tales to tell. But does this mean that Mr Wonka located his factory in Australia? This seems to be something of an unnecessary stretch.
Grieg’s book takes a darker turn with the grisly fates of the other four obnoxious children, particularly in that it skips the scene from Roald Dahl’s novel where the kids are seen to have basically recovered from their traumas in the end. With this gruesome slant to the story, there is an argument for having the four children played by young adults, but overall this is a disappointing choice. Child actors have shown they are capable of all kinds of greatness in recent productions Matilda and School of Rock. Why not here?
One of the most crowd-pleasing aspects of the show is the beloved Oompa Loompas, reconceived from the original London staging by masterful puppeteer Basil Twist. Top marks to the ensemble members who throw themselves into the Oompa Loompa’s highly amusing choreography, each performer also bringing a distinctive personality to their creation in spite of the uniform red wigs and eyebrows.
The act one sequence of songs as each of the international children finds their ticket is effective in that each family has a unique musical and visual style. Joshua Bergasse’s witty choreography is crisply performed, with highlights including dancing lederhosen-wearing Germans in “More of Him to Love”* and Veruca Salt’s sudden channelling of Clara as she battles giant rats squirrels in “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet.”
Well on his way to being a seasoned veteran with his second musical theatre role on one of Melbourne’s most cherished stages, young actor Lenny Thomas follows his memorable turn as camp costume designer Billy in School of Rock to star as plucky young imagineer Charlie Bucket. Sharing the role with Benjamin Belsey, Elijah Slavinskis, Edgar Stirling and Lachlan Young, Thomas’ performance on the Melbourne opening night was characterised by vibrant energy and unflappable confidence, supported by a strapping belt in his vocals.
The set of four “children” and parents are so well cast that it is almost impossible to name highlights. Jake Fehily is gone too soon a big fat greedy nincompoop Augustus Gloop. Jayme-Lee Hanekom is deliciously vibrant as gum addict Violet Beauregard. Jayde Westaby gives a sharply nuanced comic performance as 1950s-tragic Mrs Teavee.
Almost unrecognisable in a mousy brown bob as battler Mrs Bucket, Lucy Maunder is instantly identified the moment she sings, her gorgeous vocals infused with that trademark golden sunshine.
The casting of Broadway import Paul Slade Smith as Willy Wonka was hard to understand when it was announced. Having now seen the uncharismatic Smith struggle through the role, his casting is completely inexplicable.
Man in Chair’s fifteen-year-old nephew really enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Traditional musical theatre purists will most likely be dismayed at the lack of melody and heart in the show, but for lightweight entertainment the musical will most likely continue to find an appreciative local audience.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne before touring to Brisbane in March 2020.
*If Bavarians can be wickedly mocked in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, why can’t productions of Nine include “The Germans at the Spa”? #askingforafriend
Photos: #1 Brian Geach; #2, #4, #6 Jeff Busby; #3, #5 Heidi Victoria