NEW YORK – This summer, Broadway has sprouted a couple of new family musical hits, “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” and a stage version of the animated film “Anastasia,” about the supposedly surviving daughter of Russia's last czar. Neither show is up to the quality of long-running hits such as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” or “Hamilton.” They are middling entertainment, but they have attracted a new generation of theater-going kids and their parents and both shows are selling out.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street just off of Broadway. "Anastasia" is a couple of blocks away at the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street.
The better of the two musicals is “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” based on Roald Dahl’s brilliant 1964 classic children’s novel. Two films have been based on it, one starring Gene Wilder in 1971 and another featuring Johnny Depp in 2007.
“Charlie” is a tale of Charlie Bucket (Ryan Foust), a poor young English lad who lives in a shack with his mom (Emily Padgett) and four grandparents. Their lives are meager and their diets are paltry, consisting of cabbage or potatoes.
Across the street from the Buckets’ sad abode is a chocolate factory run by the wealthy Willie Wonka (Christian Borle). Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein) believes Willie Wonka is a magician who created a special chewing gum that never loses its taste and chocolate ice cream that stays cold without refrigeration. The factory has been closed, but as the musical opens, it is just getting back into production again. Mr. Wonka is also starting a children’s golden ticket lottery in which five winners will get sweets for a lifetime plus a special tour of the chocolate factory.
Act I is a tad too busy introducing the contestants with lots of plot information from the musical's book writer David Greig, though toward the end Charlie finally lands a golden ticket and becomes contender number five.
The show also gets more interesting after intermission, when we meet the winning contestants — a crew Dahl would take pride in: Augustus Gloop ( F. Michael Haynie), a greedy youngster with a belt of sausages; Veruca Salt, (Emma Pfaeffle), a high-hat Russian ballet dancer; Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison), a gum-chewing pop singer; and Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella), a 2017 teen who only relates to life on his electronic device.
This production of "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" was first put together by English director Sam Mendes and it ran for four years at London's Drury Lane Theatre. The New York show was directed by Jack O'Brien and has a lot more creativity and energy than the London version I saw.
But both directors have sanitized Dahl's basic ideas of the fantastic and unique dark humor that thread through the story. Mendes and O'Brien (to a lesser extent) have taken a realistic route and robbed the piece of its other-wordly magic that makes the story such a wonder.
Dahl said that when writing children's books, he always kept one eye on the child and the other on the adult since the adults are the ones that buy the books and often are the ones that read the books aloud to their children. Mr. Dahl always used his own children as a test audience to see if what he had written was any good.
The basic musical score for "Willie Wonka," by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is serviceable though unlike the inspired doo-wop music they wrote for "Hairspray." But they have written a wonderful wordy number for Borle to open Act II, "Strike that, Reverse it."
Mr. O'Brien has also smartly integrated some songs from the Gene Wilder film, like "The Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination," that add a commercial gloss to the evening.
Borle was an excellent dapper Willie Wonka once the story hits its stride.
I saw Ryan Foust as Charlie — three boys play the role in alternating performances — and he struck me as an extraordinary young actor.
White-haired John Rubinstein reminded me that in 1972 he was the original "Pippin" and is now Charlie's Grandpa Joe. Jackie Hoffman is very amusing as the cutting-edge mother, Mrs. Teavee, of a troublesome son.
I also enjoyed seeing Wonka’s factory workers, the Oompa Loompas, a raft of chorus dancers who come to life in Joshua Bregasse’s smart dance steps.
The scenery and costumes, by Mark Thompson have an elegant, stylish Victorian appearance; and the lighting by to Japhy Weideman is spot-on. Puppetry design is by Basil Twist.
The audience, children and adults, seemed to enjoy the entire show. There must have been enough pageantry to keep them interested.
But I needed a Dahl dividend, so when I got home I settled in to read my copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It has all of Dahl’s wit, sarcasm and fantasy that I missed in the show. It was the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" that I expected.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.