New York City Theater
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
Thank you, Jackie Hoffman. The actress, so perceptive in TV’s “Feud,” knows whereof she walks and talks. As prime-beef comedienne, the theater’s favorite kvetch gives a much-needed lift to the gaudy, schizoid, exhausting, lethal new musical, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Christian Borle, the two-time Tony winner who plays the not-nearly-sinister-enough Willie Wonka in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, is an antic bully, skipping lightly, treating his charges with comic disdain. Ryan Faust as young Charlie is a find (he shares the role with two others) and John Rubinstein (welcome back!) as Grandpa Joe is tinkly, but not obnoxiously so, creating a likable codger.
But the show is something else. The first act is so bloated with exposition, so dreary, that the evening has a hard time recovering. It does in the second half, somewhat, by allowing performers free reign and, especially, untethering Borle. The actor with the big eyes and expressive smile seems filled with helium as he hovers, uncertainly, between nasty and fun-loving.
The plot should be familiar to parents and kids alike. The aging Willy Wonka, candy entrepreneur, decides to pack it in. He’ll reward any child who finds a golden ticket with their candy bars. Four misfits – bloated boy, aspiring ballerina, gum-popping rock singer and funky social-media junky – find the gold token. As, of course, does Charlie.
Given a tour of the factory, the misfits meet untimely, whimsical ends: torn apart by giant squirrels, sucked into candy makings, etc. Of course, Charlie survives – no surprise there -- and, fulfilling any kid’s fantasy, bests surrounding adults by “making something out of nothing.”
David Greig’s book is pale, no match for Mark Thompson’s bright scenic and costume designs. Drifting somewhere between fanciful and earthbound, the enterprise finally gets on the nerves, despite Jack O’Brien’s spirited direction and Joshua Bergasse’s tasteful choreography.
The team of composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Whitman did much better with “Hairspray.” Here they’re outmatched by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly whose film score is appropriated for the show’s best songs: “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination” and the daffy “The Oompa Loompa Song,” featuring Basil Twist’s astounding puppetry.
Wait: Shaiman and Wittman do come up with the clever “What Could Possibly Go Wrong.” As sung by Jackie Hoffman at her most acerbic, it demonstrates what the show might have been:
“Here in the bosom of America
We love the things that make or country strong,
We give our little sons
Lots of love and lots of guns,
So what could possibly go wrong?”
--David A. Rosenberg
May 3, 2017