Dallas — I’m inclined to agree with children’s author Eleanor Cameron that Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is “one of the most tasteless books ever written for children,” and to second Ursula K. LeGuin’s observation that much of Dahl’s beloved output is swamped with “ethical crassness.”
In spite of the well-warranted tsk-tsk-ing of LeGuin, Cameron, and a few others (including me), the humor, action, and pathos of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, untainted by adult reflection, has had an enduring appeal for young readers for half a century: kids know what they want, and Dahl’s books give it to them. The popularity of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inspired two separate wide-distribution Hollywood movies in 1971 and 2005 (starring Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, respectively); 2013 brought a new, lavish, live theater version to London’s West End, with book by David Greig, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. That version, with considerable revision, moved to Broadway in 2017 and became a respectable hit, running nine months before spawning a touring version that landed at Winspear Opera House Thursday before an enthusiastic audience including lots of young Charlie fans. This shortened four-day, six-performance tour stop marks the end of AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series’ 2018-19 season.
Love or hate the author (and the grandchildren of the original audience clearly love him), the high-tech staging, a glitzy score, whimsical sets, and an imaginative expansion of the original characters bring Dahl’s world to life with eye-popping immediacy. Wishes are fulfilled, wicked children are punished swiftly and severely (the death toll here matches your average Shakespeare tragedy), and sugar-based consumerism triumphs (along with a few winks to the grownups in the audience).
In the demanding title role of Charlie, Henry Boshart, the only actual child in the cast (the other children are played by adult actors), impressively evokes the requisite combination of innocence, enthusiasm, and ambition. Noah Weisberg brings appropriate manic energy to the role of Willie Wonka, a paranoid capitalist who slips back and forth from child-like good-heartedness to a sort of casual cruelty. Weisberg has a gorgeous Broadway tenor voice burnished with superb dramatic timing: he even manages to put a glow on the opening song “The Candy Man.” (That particular item is one of two songs borrowed from the 1971 movie version; with its irritatingly chirpy melody and lyrics suggesting that eating lots of candy brings happiness, it surely ranks as one of the low points of American popular music, but Weisberg manages to make it work here.)
The supporting cast offers a wide range of intriguing characters, with some broad embellishments on Dahl’s original conceptions. Violet Beauregard (Brynn Williams), who merely loves bubble gum obsessively in the novel, becomes a “pop” star with an act based on popping gum; Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen) becomes a ballet dancer and the daughter of a Russian post-Soviet oligarch (who recently bought North Korea for her). Cohen owns an extraordinary skill set, including ballet, but her dismemberment by giant dark squirrels in a parody of nineteenth-century Russian ballet is one of the more gruesome moments in the show. Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), a ‘60s-style television junkie in the novel, becomes an even more violently disposed digital gamer; As Mrs. Teavee, Mike’s doting, alcoholic, pill-guzzling mother, Madeleine Doherty delivers one of the most memorable performances of the show with an earsplitting parody of a Broadway belter à la Merman in “That Little Man of Mine.” Hopelessly chubby Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood) transfers to Bavaria and lederhosen, under the doting eye of his equally food-addicted mother (Beth Kirkpatrick).
(Warning to parents who might be concerned about such things: although Veruca, Augustus, and Violet survive in the novel, their demise in this version is permanent.)
James Young brought a crochety wisdom to the role of Grandpa Joe; while Amanda Rose portrays Charlie’s overworked mother with calm realism and pathos. (All the children in the novel have two parents, but this musical version trims down to one parent for each.) Clyde Voce delivers some of the best laugh-out-loud lines in the show in the added role of Mrs. Green, a purveyor of rotten fruit; Joel Newsome and Karen Hyland are the smarmy, self-important news team that covers Wonka mania as it sweeps the world.
The versatile chorus—quite as good at singing as dancing—get the loudest cheers when they appear as the Oompa Loompas. Charming and entertaining as it is, with the chorus “dancing” with their hands, the whole setup is problematic: in early versions of the novel, the Oompa Loompas were identified as Africans, though that designation evolved, under pressure on Dahl, into just small-in-stature people of unspecified ethnicity who lived in trees in a jungle before being “rescued” to operate Wonka’s factory (after Wonka fired everyone else). They like to sing and dance all the time, they are paid only in cacao beans, and they never leave the factory. While their presence in the show is indisputably cute and appealing, the implications of a merrily enslaved work force is obviously ugly.
Director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Joshua Bergasse create nonstop energy in this fantasy world, backed up by sets and costumes that capture the bizarre playfulness of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the novel. The score, here performed with a compact, efficient orchestra conducted by Charlie Alterman, flows smoothly and busily. Like a bag full of sticky treats, this latest musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is tempting and, ultimately, not very healthful.