This ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ explores the limits of live theater like no other show
Sometimes when revisiting an older show you’ve seen many times before in other forms, the expectation that you’ll actually enjoy it again after all those years can be pretty low. When it comes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I’d read the book and seen the original movie as a kid. Then I went through another round when one of my sons played Willy Wonka in his high school play and another was Augustus Gloop in a summer theatre camp production.
And then there was that whole other round with Johnny Depp stepping into the Wonka role.
And while I was pretty sure the new version of the musical that’s now playing at the Denver Center would be well-done production-wise, I wondered whether the story itself would still be of interest.
As it happened, I was able to go with my eldest son Austin, he who once played Wonka, and we left the Buell Theatre after opening night pretty much blown away. This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no lazy retread: It’s a completely re-thought interpretation of Roald Dahl’s famous story with new (and old) songs, enhanced character portrayals and a level of high-end stagecraft and special effects that served the story perfectly.
Director Jack O’Brien pulls out all the stops in pursuit of creating the world Roald envisioned. In Act 1, we move from the shabby home of the Buckets to a variety of quick tableaus representing the four other Golden Ticket winners. For Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), the over-the-top intro scene includes every Bavarian stereotype possible, complete with the lederhosen- and dirndl-clad dancers swinging ropes of sausage.
Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams) is a black teen who, with the help of her Hollywood-trope-y dad (David Samuel), promotes her gum-chewing exploits non-stop on social media. Her intro scene infuses the old show with a newer look and some hip-hoppier music, while the midriff-baring, booty-shaking dancers backing her inject a bit more spice than we’re used to in this story.
Veruca Salt gets a major overhaul, with the spoiled rich girl played by dancer Jessica Cohen. This Veruca is as nasty and bratty as previous ones, but she’s also an accomplished ballerina. Along with her bad attitude, she sports her tutu and pointe shoes for the entire show (along with a fur made from baby seal). It adds a nice extra layer to an otherwise one-dimensional character.
Nathaniel Hackman is hilarious as Mr. Salt — a Russian oligarch with a thick accent, a long fur coat and a stripe of white in his hair.
For Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino), the character gets an update from TV watching to video-game playing. We learn in his intro scene that he’s also being controlled by a variety of prescription meds — this from a hilarious and dark song performed by his mother (Madeleine Doherty). As Mike’s boozy, pill-popping mom, Doherty is hilarious — the one parent of the lot who outshines her offspring.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always had a grittier edge than most fare aimed at children, but the substance use and apparent abuse of the Teavees — along with a few other things — puts this show beyond a “G” rating. We wondered after the show if they get complaints from more conservative parents about some of the violence and drug references. Suffice to say this show may not be suitable for kids under 10 — or kids with parents who don’t want them exposed to such material.
Charlie is played by three different young actors depending on the night. The production we saw featured Rueby Wood, a strong actor with a voice to match and a take on the character not too far from the original meek Charlie. Along with his Grandpa Joe (James Young), they follow Wonka and the rest into the factory at the end of Act I. As the golden doors slammed shut and the lights came up for intermission, there was a collective sense that all the amazing stuff we’d just seen was about to be enhanced tenfold for the second act in Wonka’s factory.
From Gene Wilder’s soft-spoken, slightly manic portrayal in the 1971 film to Johnny Depp’s tweaked-out freaky version in 2005, Wonka’s shoes can be tough to fill. In this production, Noah Weisberg portrays Willy Wonka as a shape-shifting loon who veers from sweet to curt to downright mean and back again with rhyming patter, constant movement and a carnival barker’s eye on always keeping attention on him.
He’s fantastic, a triple threat who can sing and dance while fully exploring the weirdness and underlying malice of Wonka in the speaking parts.
In Act Two, the touring production team has its hands full with an astonishing parade of impressive sets and effects that come and go in quick succession. From the entirely edible psychedelic garden (with milkable giraffe) where Gloop meets his chocolaty fate all the way to the glass elevator at the end, this show dazzles on the technical level like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Along with the extraordinary set pieces, there’s also highly inventive use of digital projections throughout the show. These are shown on a series of frames surrounding the stage and set upstage and downstage from one other. This enables the ability to mess with our depth perception and alter the frame with which we see the action on stage. Projections are also paired with actions on stage, allowing them to move into the digital realm offstage and above.
Words can’t do it justice, but the overall effect is nothing short of magical.
And then there are the Oompa Loompas.
These are portrayed by the dancers and swing actors using body puppets and their own orange-wigged heads. It’s a lower-tech effect than those described above, but strikingly effective. The actors wear black catsuits and perform on their knees while manipulating the arms and legs of the puppets. Even though we knew they were coming, they arrived with such a flourish that they got their own round of applause.
From beginning to end, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a wild ride, an excellent example of how a beloved story can be updated respectfully and still retain its original appeal. At the heart of all the fantastic effects, the wonderful dance numbers, the powerful live orchestra and everything else, Dahl’s odd story of an eccentric chocolatier and his would-be apprentice still delights.
It’s a story about greed, for sure, and a strong statement about how vices corrupt. Even in 1964, when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published, modern excess was becoming a concern. Dahl’s take on the sins of too much screen time, gluttony, narcissism, capitalism and sloth are even more relevant today. As our own version of Mike Teavee tweets from the Oval Office, we always remain hopeful that the Charlie Buckets of the world can come along to make things right.
In that respect, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a story for the ages, and this production is one not to miss.