By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Most audience members who attended the recent Broadway in New Orleans production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn’t know what they were missing. It was like sampling a chocolate bar with a smidgen of cacoa as opposed to one chocked full of rich and dark flavor.
Unless one has experienced the latter, the former will more than suffice. For those that saw the splendid Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, this non-equity national touring production provided but a little flash and much frippery.
The Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman musical with a book by David Greig also ran for more than three years on London’s West End before it was reworked for American audiences and moved to Broadway. The fact it ran more than four times as long in England may be more of a connection to the novel by Roald Dahl than anything else.
Brits seem to respond to Dahl’s dark and sometimes creepy characters much better than Americans who have been steeped in the sweet tea of Disney and given sanitized and safe versions of the Brothers Grimm via animated cartoons or in syrupy children’s books.
The best fairy tales carry with them a measure of danger or the happy endings – if they are to occur – will ring hollow and without meaning.
Cody Garcia’s Willy Wonka is full of guile and deceit, but he is ultimately charming in his cunning manner. After all, it is his fervent desire to find someone who can continue and enhance what he has started at his wondrous chocolate factory. The key we all will learn is to find an innocent child, whose imagination will provide for the factory’s future growth and stability.
As Wonka, Garcia begins his quest by first disguising himself as a candy shop purveyor who sings of the mysterious candy maker in “The Candy Man.” The Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley piece does seem out of place here as does “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and Act Two’s “Pure Imagination,” all lifted from the Warner Brothers film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” These pieces did not appear in the more successful West End version of the musical and it was fear on the part of the American producers that audiences might react badly, which led them to insist they be inserted in the Broadway version.
Like Broadway’s Christian Borle, who originated the role at the Lunt-Fontanne, Garcia does mug the audience a bit, teetering but not breaking the fourth wall. Ultimately, the responsibility of moving the production along does resonate within his character and he does a very creditable job of breathing life into the Willy Wonka character in an endearing fashion.
The child role of Charlie Bucket is filled by two actors, Brody Bett and Ryan Umbarila. The other “children” bearing golden tickets who visit the factory are, in fact, adults playing roles. It was the intention of the producers and original director Jack O’Brien to give Charlie as much believability as a child as is possible and to imbue the character with the natural wonder and naiveté of a little boy.
The times when Charlie and Willy Wonka (or the candy store owner) are on stage together are relegated to the very beginning and the ending of the work, but those are special times. The rest of the time, Charlie is interacting with his Grandpa Joe (Steve McCoy) or, with his mother (Caitlin Lester-Sams) in the song “If Your Father Were Here.”
The Grandpa Joe character is not realized as much as he could have been. Still, McCoy does a good job in delivering the essence of Charlie’s grandfather, who was played with remarkable insight by John Rubinstein on Broadway. The key to Grandpa Joe is his learning what he has forgotten: the joy of life is found in the innocence of a child’s eyes and his inquisitiveness. His vicarious enjoyment makes him feel young again and affords him the sheer exuberance of accompanying Charlie on the tour.
The other players of Violet Beauregarde (Zakiya Baptiste), Veruka Salt (Angela Palladini), Augustus Gloop (Sam St. Jean) and Mike Teavee (Matthew Boyd Snyder) all have songs to flesh out their rather one-dimensional characters. In every case, a parent accompanies them on the journey and in song.
Audrey Belle Adams sings “More of Him to Love” with Augustus. Brandan R. Mangan sings “Queen of Pop” about Violet’s gum-chewing obsession. “That Little Man of Mine” is delivered by Mike and Mrs. Teavee (Katie Kay Francis) and Scott Fuss sings with Veruka in the trying “When Veruka Says.”
If Act One belongs to Willie Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the other golden ticket winners and their parents, then Act Two becomes the property of the hilarious Oompa Loompas, who describe the downfall of each of the recalcitrant children who meet terrible fates in the chocolate factory. Through creative costuming and staging, the Oompa Loompas provide the largest share of the comedy grist for the production’s musical mill in the second half of the production.
But even the Oompa Loompas can’t make up for a number of missteps.
Major problems in lighting design, which forced an unexpected and unfortunate curtain after only the second song and a lengthy delay of more than ten minutes while the production team attempted to right their sinking ship, was just one example of why this non-equity show fails on several levels.
In the end, the audience was only given a portion of what they had hoped would be a memorable theatrical experience. The magic from the Broadway production did not translate over to the national tour, which is a shame because more of an effort should have been given and audiences deserved much more.
The national tour of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ finishes its run in Detroit before moving to Worchester, MA; St. Louis, MO; Grand Rapid, MI; and other cities. For more information, check listings here.