Most folk’s affection for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began with reading the book or watching the somewhat renamed 1971 Gene Wilder film. “Charlie” purists rejected Tim Burton’s 2005 cinematic take on the tale as too dark and weird. Well folks, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
San Francisco’s SHN Golden Gate Theatre is hosting the touring company from the 2017 Broadway production through May 12 that, while based on Dahl’s classic, goes in several decidedly different directions. Audiences expecting anything close to the original book or film are likely to leave disappointed.
The show opens with Willy Wonka himself (Noah Weisberg) providing needless exposition and singing “The Candy Man.” Lest you think that’s a sign of good things to come, forget it. While you’ll hear some of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Oscar-nominated score and songs from the original film, most of the songs in this version are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Despite their pedigree (Hairspray, the recent Mary Poppins Returns), their work here is weak and forgettable.
That’s just the first in a series of mistakes made by this show’s creators. David Grieg’s book introduces Wonka from the get-go and eliminates a lot of the mystery about him. He’s also written Wonka as pretty much of a jerk and aged every other child but Charlie into a sullen teenager (or older). This may have been out of necessity as they might have had difficulty casting children as characters who (spoiler alert) explode on stage or are dismembered by giant squirrels.
You read that right. While in the book and films the bratty kids get their comeuppances, in this version they’re killed. Be prepared to do a lot of explaining to your tykes should you choose to bring them along. Additionally, the stagecraft was surprisingly weak and the finale with the great glass elevator was less than great.
What the show does get right is some of the casting. Henry Boshart (one of three young actors performing the role of Charlie Bucket) is absolutely delightful and he brings a charm to the show that is sorely lacking elsewhere. James Young brings a lot of heart as Grandpa Joe. The solution to casting the Oompa Loompas is a clever one, and their appearances were definitely the show’s highlights. In the end, this Chocolate was too bitter for my tastes.