Hollywood to Broadway – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Book:
  ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, by Roald Dahl. Published in 1964
The Movies: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The Broadway Show:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opened on April 23, 2017

Mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to anyone of a certain age and it’s highly likely the first image that pops into their brain is Gene Wilder’s master of chocolate from the film adaptation in 1971. Titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to highlight Wilder’s star presence, there’s a valid reason why people have a certain fondness for it. With a script from Dahl himself that was wacky with whimsy while maintaining his overly sinister edge, the film chugs along nicely although it always has felt longer to me than its 100 minutes. This is largely in part to several dud songs from Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley (‘Cheer Up Charlie’ is such a morose cocktail it should be followed with an anti-depressant chaser) and a gross belching scene with Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his grandfather (Jack Albertson) that I’ve found less tolerable as each year passes. And how about that terrifying journey on Wonka’s boat with images of slimy insects and a chicken getting its head chopped off? Don’t remember it? You’ve probably been watching an edited version toned down for the kiddies coming at it fresh.

Still, though it takes a while to get there with a whole heap of exposition that’s admittedly mostly necessary, there’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of Wonka’s fabulously designed factory centerpiece with its edible plants and chocolate river. It becomes less appetizing as it goes on but for a while there is truly is scrumdidilyumptious.

What wasn’t so tasty was Tim Burton’s 2005 re-imagining that put Charlie back in the title but became an even more tripped-out version than it’s ‘70s predecessor. Typically Burton-esque with oversized CGI set-pieces and oversaturated candy-coated colors, I still don’t see any real reason to spend much time digesting this one. Featuring another creepy performance by Burton muse Johnny Depp and a forgettable supporting cast of oddballs, the Bricusse/Newley songs were ousted in favor of new compositions from Danny Elfman and are pale comparisons with even the most throw-away tunes from the original. It’s a dark and threatening film and while it’s been some time since I’ve seen it all the way through, I remember wanting it to be over before Charlie and his fellow Golden Ticket winners even set foot inside the fabled factory.  The less said about this one, the better.

Flash forward to 2013 when London’s West End featured the premiere of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stage musical. Maintaining several of the Bricusse/Newley songs and padded with music from Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman the show was directed by Sam Mendes to be bigger than life. From the clips I’ve seen online, this show was huge from beginning to end and was a popular title during it’s nearly four year run in the UK. Bringing it to Broadway was inevitable but by the time it jumped the pond Mendes was out as director and it seems like he took most of the set with him. What opened in April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has been drastically reworked, ditching the overwhelming enormity of its Brit big brother and replacing them with production values seemingly designed to make the show easier to tour (it’ll be coming to a theater near you in 2018) and that just didn’t sit well with me.

While Christian Borle sounded great and played the sarcastic side of Wonka to a T, the actor is just one of many in the show that looks like they are dying a slow death while children in the audience scream and beg their parents for more candy at intermission. In a way, I felt sorry for them because these are talented performers who likely signed up to participate in a spectacle but learned too late they’d be Our Town-ing it for much of the show. Just wait until Act 2 when the big reveal of the edible room appears on a rolling platform the size of a department store window. The ‘children’ (strangely played by adults in NYC, save for Charlie himself) don’t even all fit on it at the same time! The one bright spot of the show were the Oompa-Loompas, brought hilariously to life via some overly simplistic theater magic that nonetheless had me howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience.  Parents be warned, some of the children go out in increasingly perverse fashion…with one unfortunate being ripped apart and another exploding in a cascade of purple glitter.

The last show I saw during my eight days in NYC, I couldn’t help but be a bummed out by this small scale bon-bon that often looked appetizing but wasn’t filling in the least.

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