Several ingredients are missing in the batter of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the musical rendition of Roald Dahl’s classic novel that played at the Fox Theatre from Sept. 24 to 29. The story has already been adapted twice to the silver screen, and the musical version — which spent a nine-month stint on Broadway from 2017 to 2018 — doesn’t contribute much more to the iconic tale. While lighthearted and colorful, the musical lacks the showtunes or story to leave a lasting impact on the audience.
The musical tells the story of Charlie Bucket (Brendan Reilly Harris), an ambitious, impoverished child living in a ramshackle house with his Grandpa Joe (James Young) and his mother, Mrs. Bucket (Amanda Rose). Charlie’s luck changes when he finds a Golden Ticket in a Wonka candy bar and wins the opportunity to take a tour of Willy Wonka’s (Noah Weisberg) world-famous chocolate factory. Charlie joins the obese Augustus Gloop (Matt Wood), the narcissistic Veruca Salt (Jessica Cohen), the competitive gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde (Brynn Williams) and the tech-obsessed Mike Teavee (Daniel Quadrino) as they navigate the treacherous factory.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” pops with color and excitement, which particularly buds from Harris’ portrayal of the titular character. Harris absolutely oozes youthful joy, and it’s hard not to smile when he sings about his love for Wonka in one of the opening songs, “Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!” On top of Harris’ strong performance, the show has some creative special effects up its sleeve once the characters enter the factory. In one especially noteworthy sequence, each actor impressively traverses an invisible obstacle course.
The musical doesn’t enter the actual chocolate factory until after intermission, and the first act competently sets up each of the characters with an extravagant musical number. However, because the show only reserves one act for the factory tour, the play feels rushed once inside. One of the casualties of its breakneck pace is a disappointing lack of banter between the various children and parents. Dahl wrote a diverse array of characters, and it’s a shame that David Greig’s script doesn’t take advantage of their eccentricities. Rather than a comprehensive rendering of the story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” merely feels like a series of unfortunate events with songs interlaced.
Even the musical’s production value is subpar, despite the immense potential that lies within the chocolate factory. In fact, factory sets appear as though they could have come straight from a high school production. The portrayal of the Chocolate Room is the biggest let down. Anyone who has seen either iteration of the film can vouch for the pure wonder of the Chocolate Room, but the musical settles for a small strip of artificial flowers and wildlife that doesn’t compare to the imaginative world within each film. While it’s naturally difficult to capture movie magic on the stage, the musical’s effort is far from commendable.
The musical’s greatest shortcoming is the music itself, which fails to elevate the weak script and character development. I couldn’t name or sing a single song from the show apart from “Pure Imagination,” “The Candy Man” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” all of which originated in the 1971 film. Considering that the music was written by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, the songwriting team behind the excellent showtunes from “Hairspray,” it’s frankly appalling that not a single new song is memorable or catchy. With so many engaging characters, the architects of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” missed a substantial opportunity to integrate music into the story, and it’s disappointing that the songs somehow all fall short.
Weisberg’s performance as Wonka is another massive disappointment. Although he receives plenty of time on stage and certainly chews scenery, Weisberg is far too likable and normal as the strange chocolatier. Wonka basically disposes of several children in cold blood, yet Weisberg comes across as a garrulous talk show host rather than a lunatic. Weisberg should have channeled aspects of Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp’s portrayals of Wonka, as both managed to impressively balance the character’s creepiness with his showmanship.
With ample potential to succeed, it’s tragic that “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is such a disappointing production. Rather than expanding on the source material, the show essentially amounts to a discounted version of the original with forgettable music and a light plot. There are certainly worse ways you can spend three hours, but I recommend renting either film version and watching that instead.