It’s hard to predict how grownups might feel about this inflated musical adapted from previous stage and film treatments of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel, “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.” (There’s scant evidence that anyone went back to the original 1964 book for inspiration.) Savvy kids, however, might stage a revolt after seeing how the uncanny darkness of Dahl’s imagination has been lightened and brightened in helmer Jack O’Brien’s mechanized production.
How to forgive the inflated spectacle made of Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory, where gluttonous children rush in, but don’t come out? Considerable cash (much of it from Warner Bros. Theater Ventures) was lavished on this production, and whatever went into orchestrations, arrangements, and musical direction of the toe-tappy score by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricists Scott Wittman and Shaiman, was well spent. But a good chunk of the investment money appears to have been lavished on sets, costumes, and those repulsive Oompa Loompas. While visually droll, too many of these gimmicks distract from the story and encourage the cartoon treatment of characters as caricatures.
Happily, the character of Charlie Bucket escapes this mishandling, as do the three young actors (Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust, and Ryan Sell) who alternate in the role of the poor, but honest lad who is too good to be greedy. Ryan Foust, who played the part at a designated critics’ performance, was the best thing in the show — sweet, earnest, and thoroughly professional.
John Rubenstein, who plays Charlie’s Grandpa Joe, hams it up in his early scenes, but calms down and becomes more trustworthy as the boy’s chaperone when he is allowed into the chocolate factory. The other lucky holders of the golden tickets that gain them entry into this deadly kingdom are hideous caricatures of children, forced to wear outlandish costumes and perform tunefully catchy, but dehumanizing musical numbers. Thankfully, these disposable creatures are played by adult thesps.
As for the character who looms over everything in this show — the reclusive chocolatier known as Willie Wonka — he’s not as dopey as Gene Wilder or as creepy as Johnny Depp. But, as played by Christian Borle (wonderful in “Something Rotten”), he’s much too charming and lacks the aura of stranger-danger that Dahl took care to give him in his story.
It’s no secret that Warner Brothers has poured considerable cash into this lavish production. That could explain (but won’t forgive) the overwhelming emphasis on visual effects, which look like the refined-sugar nightmares of naughty children who consumed a two-pound box of Godiva Chocolates.