Thoughts on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – The New Musical

What: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the New Musical
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne

Performances run until December 2019
For more information, please visit https://charliethemusical.com.au

From the imagination of British novelist Roald Dahl, comes the tale of young Charlie Bucket who, along with four other children, wins a tour inside of the Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The musical closely follows that of the 1964 novel of the same name, as well as Tim Burton’s 2005 movie adaption.

It is less like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder. The screenplay for the 1971 film was reworked against Dahl’s personal wishes – so, we can all thank screenwriter David Seltzer for that awful burping bubble scene! Which thankfully does not appear in this musical adaptation.

However, the characters in this new production have received a 21st century makeover – Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) is now a computer hacker and avid gamer, constantly glued to his mobile phone; Violet Beauregard (Jayme-Lee Hanekom) is a Californian pop-star princess; Veruca Salt (Karina Russell) is a spoilt Russian ballerina, and Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily) is a yodeling, bratwurst-obsessed German stereotype.

I’ll first start with the positives. The costumes are marvelous, the songs catchy (yet somewhat forgettable) and, despite my personal gripes which I’ll speak more on later, the sets and prop design were inventive and colourful. The characters too are well defined with each getting their own introductory song and key moments throughout. I especially enjoyed Fehily’s enthusiasm was camp, over-the-top and infectious  performance in his professional debut.

All actors, except Charlie, are played by adults. Lenny Thomas, playing Charlie on opening night (alternately played by four actors), shone against the star studded adult cast. Lucy Maunder was unsurprisingly brilliant as compassionate Mrs. Bucket, and multi award-winner Tony Sheldon’s was an audience favourite. His comedic portrayal of Grandpa Joe rivaled Bert (Dick Van Dyke) in the film Mary Poppins. 

Making his Australian debut, New York-native Paul Slade Smith played Carson Kressley playing Willy Wonka. Jokes aside, the accomplished Broadway actor and writer was the perfect amount of charming and charismatic, yet strange and threatening when required. His performance of It Must Be Believed to Be Seen was the clear standout.

But that too leads into the bad —

It wasn’t that I hated the musical. In fact, there was a lot I liked. Overall, I felt under-whelmed. Maybe I’m channeling my inner Veruca Salt, but I wanted more. Act I feels long and focuses on Charlie, his family and finding a Golden Ticket. We as an audience get swept up in the fanaticism of Charlie’s dream of seeing inside the chocolate factory. The musical feels like it’s constantly building up to something extraordinary, and when the lights go out before the interval, you’re excited to see what wonders lie beyond those Wonka gates in Act II.

I don’t like to compare productions as a rule, but it is difficult not to when its source material is so widely known. Two years ago the Aladdin musical played in the same theatre and seeing inside the Cave of Wonders for the first time had a scale and grandeur to it,  surpassing all expectations. Even seeing inside the factory in either of the Dahl film adaptations had an indescribable awe to them. But when we first see inside the factory in the musical, it doesn’t feel as wondrous as it could be.

There’s a heavy reliance on the use of computer graphics, invisible maze gags, and the blanketing of the spiral curtain (as seen in the photo below) when the crew move in the next scene’s set pieces. I understand the limitations of budget, space and what’s physically possible, but considering the genuine magic being done in the nearby Princess Theatre, it doesn’t feel like enough in my opinion.

I’m also unsure who the musical is aimed at (I haven’t read the book either, so I can’t comment). I suppose it is a musical for those wanting book and/or movie nostalgia, or geared towards children. However, the kid beside me seemed bored for a lot of it, only to stop rustling his chip packet when the Oompa Loompas came on stage – which is the musical’s saving grace. The scene when we first see the Oompa Loompas was the scene that entering the factory should have been. It revived the crowd. It was funny, joyous, well done and every time they were on stage, it felt like a breath of fresh air.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proves good prevails, wicked children get what they deserve, and that anything is possible with a touch of pure imagination. Despite everything, the ticket price is worth it for the laughs from the Oompa Loompas alone. It’s good, nor great, but there is humour, colour and a lot to like. If you’re okay with your kids seeing children being dismembered and exploding, then this twisted musical makes for a wonderful family day out.

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