Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has become a favourite of several generations of children around the world since its first publication in 1964. The novel inspired two film versions, the superior 1971 picture (starring Gene Wilder) itself becoming a widely-loved classic.
Considering its enduring popularity, it’s unsurprising that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been given the full-blown stage musical treatment. With a book by Scottish playwright David Greig, new music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the show opened on London’s West End in 2013. Four years later, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory arrived on Broadway after substantial re-working. Jack O’Brien (a Tony Award winner for his work at the helm of Hairspray) signed on as director, Joshua Bergasse (who won an Emmy for his choreography on musical TV series Smash) joined the creative team as choreographer, and Mark Thompson re-designed the set. Iconic music from the 1971 film was also added alongside Shaiman’s and Wittman’s new material.
It’s this revamped US production that has opened at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. Starring American actor Paul Slade Smith as Willy Wonka (a role he understudied on Broadway), the musical preserves the familiar story of the enigmatic chocolate factory owner who opens his factory to five young competition winners (and their guardians). There’s the gluttonous Bavarian, Augustus Gloop (Jake Fehily), and his mother (Octavia Barron Martin); the excessively-pampered Russian ballerina, Veruca Salt (Karina Russell), and her father (Stephen Anderson); the so-called ‘Queen of Pop’ (owing to her relentless gum-chewing habit), Violet Beauregard (Monette McKay), and her father (Madison McKoy); the tech-obsessed and arguably juvenile delinquent, Mike Teavee (Harrison Riley) and his mother (Jayde Westaby); and Charlie Bucket (played on opening night by Ryan Yeates) and his Grandpa, Joe (Tony Sheldon). In contrast to his bratty co-winners, Charlie is a good child.
The first half of proceedings is devoted to pre-factory tour events. There’s an introductory scene for each of the competition winners, as well as Charlie’s interactions with the owner of a local candy shop (who’s actually Wonka in disguise), where Charlie spends considerable time yearning to win one of the prized golden tickets. It means that Act II, focusing on what transpires within the factory, is reasonably fast-paced, given the amount of story that remains to be covered.
One significant change to the book and film version of the story is that the opening scene of O’Brien’s production involves Wonka explaining to the audience who he is and unveiling his plan to find a suitable successor to run the chocolate factory (in the film, we don’t learn of Wonka’s motives until the final scene). One could argue that Wonka not putting his cards on the table until the show’s final minutes, consistent with the book and film, would heighten the impact of those closing moments.
On the whole, however, this production of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is highly polished and very entertaining and it succeeds in actually being moving, rather than schmaltzy. O’Brien has added a healthy dose of black comedy (Veruca Salt’s dispatching would certainly have won the approval of Dahl himself) and has ensured that themes around the need for integrity and good character, and the power of imagination retain their importance. There’s some good music, too. Mrs Bucket (Lucy Maunder) ruminates on how life for her family would be different were Charlie’s father still alive in a sweet ballad, ‘If your father were here’; ‘It must be believed to be seen’ is Wonka’s catchy teaser as to what lies inside the factory; and ‘The View from Here’ is a tender final number about the rewards of dreaming big.
Smith is a strong leading man in a strong cast and succeeds in exemplifying the eccentric entrepreneur. He is elastic and whimsical and magnetic all at once, giving us a character distinct from the Wonkas we’ve seen on screen and who feels as though he could’ve jumped off the pages of Dahl’s novel. Thirteen-year-old Yeates makes a wonderful debut on the professional stage, delivering a version of his character that is characteristically Charlie. His singing is similarly impressive. Sheldon is another asset to the production, delivering some great lines as Charlie’s senescent Grandpa Joe, while Maunder is warm and kind-hearted as the struggling breadwinner of the Bucket household.
Perhaps where audiences may expect Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to delight more than it does is in its production design. While Thompson’s set – utilising a combination of physical pieces and LED screens – locates us effectively enough, the factory reveal isn’t a gobsmacking moment, nor is there quite the stage magic one often associates with a musical of this kind. That’s not to say this isn’t an attractive production, but perhaps the creatives could have taken more inspiration from the imaginations of their leading characters in recreating Wonka’s factory.
A standout feature of the production is Bergasse’s terrific choreography. A balletic number performed by squirrels immediately before Veruca salt’s demise is especially memorable, and Russell herself demonstrates remarkable dance skills throughout.
In short, it may not offer a visual feast, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is enjoyable, wonderfully performed and even a touching theatrical experience.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Capitol Theatre, Campbell Street, Haymarket
Season: Selling to 19 May, 2019
Performance Times: Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Tues & Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm, extra school holiday matinee 24 Jan 1pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267
Groups 12+ call 1300 889 278
* Performance times vary weekly
** Transaction fees apply