Last night (that would be July 11th, 2017), I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with a family friend of mine. We had to bolt to the Lunt-Fontanne since our train ran a little late, plus my friend insisted we had dinner in Hell’s Kitchen before the show. Thankfully, since our restaurant was three blocks away from the theatre, we arrived with a few minutes to spare. I got my Playbill, began to thumb through it excitedly, and found out through a nice little paper insert that Christian Borle’s understudy, Paul Slade Smith, would be playing Willy Wonka at our performance. I was a little disappointed since I wanted to see Charlie primarily for Christian Borle.
In the end, Paul Slade Smith gave a wonderful performance as Willy Wonka! As like most adaptations of the story, Wonka is a brilliantly demented candy maker who, in the end, is only trying to find the right person who’s just as creative as him to inherit his factory. His interactions with Charlie (played by Ryan Sell, a fellow Floridian) were sweet if not sporadic, and once Charlie and the Golden Ticket winners enter the factory, his charisma really comes into play. What was especially hilarious were some of the morbid quips Wonka made throughout the factory tour, including one about Augustus Gloop’s bones getting stuck in the toffee. And of course, Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator ride with Charlie ended the show poignantly with the song ‘The View from Here’.
Of course, this adaptation of Charlie gets a few updated tweaks so audiences can better relate. For example, in addition to chewing gum, Violet Beauregarde is a social media addict, Veruca Salt is a Russian ballerina, and Mike Teavee is addicted to his iPad and hacking into computers. There’s also some social and even political commentary (mainly Donald Trump jokes, especially in the song ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’) throughout the show. It’s even implied that the kids die in the end. I know Charlie isn’t the happiest story out there, but to watch as Veruca’s limbs got torn apart by squirrels certainly was a surprise. Naturally, since I’m a fan of all things dark and spooky, I wasn’t at all unimpressed and I think the dark humor actually gave the show a bit more personality beyond its other adaptations.
If there’s one thing I’d have to criticize the show for, it’s how misconstrued the plot gets at times. What was the point of Wonka disguising himself as a candy shop owner just to briefly spy on Charlie and close the shop later? Are the kids really dead? And then at one point before the last song, Grandpa Joe disappears after confronting Wonka about Charlie’s prize for essentially surviving the tour and is only mentioned in passing afterwards.
I also have to bring up the sets… or more like set pieces. A lot of the initial reviews for Charlie mentioned that the sets were too minimalist and small. While I’d say the set pieces look all right from a distance and fill up most of the stage, it was disappointing to see the wondrous Chocolate Room be represented by a diorama-like set piece that looked more like a garden in Fairyland, complete with rainbows and puffy clouds. Wonka’s incognito candy shop and the Bucket family home were pretty interesting and had some details, such as candy boxes and patchwork quilts, that I would’ve liked to see up close. The show also utilizes projections for certain scenes, such as when the Golden Ticket winners are introduced and when the Oompa Loompas’ origin story is revealed in a song entitled “When Willy Met Oompa”.
Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy Charlie, especially since this was the first show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It’s interesting to compare the three most well-known adaptations – the Wilder film, the Burton film, and now the Broadway musical – and note how each encourage the use of pure imagination. There are a few short-comings here and there, but the high energy of the cast certainly makes up for them. Here’s to seeing many more shows on the Great White Way.