After watching the spirited musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I began to wonder if author Roald Dahl actually liked children. As entertaining, whimsical and creative as the show is, it could certainly invoke nightmares. Willie Wonka, a famous chocolatier, creates a contest where the winners of five golden tickets and their parents get to tour his factory. The winners, except for poor, humble Charlie, represent vices of children: spoiled rotten, arrogant and aggressive, competitive and boastful, gluttonous and greedy. Each of the four meets a gruesome and nightmarish end. One gets stuck in a machine, another blows up and bursts, a third becomes miniaturized and the fourth is thrown away as a “bad nut” by the trained squirrels. It’s enough to give you bad dreams. At least, unlike the movie, the “bad children” are played by adults so maybe that’s why the audience isn’t as disturbed.
Charlie is the opposite. His family is extremely poor, yet Charlie remains positive and upbeat. He gets one chocolate bar a year for his birthday and hopes optimistically to find the fifth ticket.
Broadway favorite Christian Borle stars as Willie, a childlike chocolatier. Although Charlie is obviously poor yet gentle and nice, Willie keeps tempting and teasing him. When the children in the factory meet horrible ends, Willie blithely moves on. Borle is like a big child himself, teasing, taunting and playful. He’s always smiling, but his Willie has a dark side.
The show has wonderful special effects and the music includes everyone’s favorite melody, “The Candy Man,” but new music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), though tuneful at times, doesn’t stay with you and doesn’t add much. The best scenes include the Oompa-Loompas, little munchkin- like creatures who work for Willie. Members of the ensemble balance on their knees while they use their hands to move the creatures’ arms and legs. It’s a cool sight, with delightful puppetry designed by Basil Twist.
The role of Charlie is rotated among three young boys. Jake Ryan Flynn was featured in the performance I attended. Unfortunately, John Rubenstein, who usually plays Grandpa Joe, was out for that show. Charlie’s grandparents are in bed together and have been for years. They are all invalids but their characters provide some adult humor. Charlie’s dad is not in the picture and his hardworking mother played by Emily Padgett sings a lovely song about her memories of him.
The show is beautiful to see; it’s pure spectacle, colorful and glittery, with great special effects and costumes. (Scenic and costume design is by Mark Thompson.)
By the end, Charlie is the grand prize winner! Surprise! So, is the lesson that the meek will inherit the chocolate factory? Ah, if only so. Despite my personal misgivings, the many children in the audience hooted and cheered for the show. So obviously they weren’t scared. Maybe kids today are tougher than they were in my time.