REVIEW | The new musical uses illusions and special effects to recreate Wonka's factory onstage
The jokes and songs are for kids but Wonka's stage tricks will make anyone smile.
Broadway is now a contender for the sweetest place on Earth, thanks to a wondrous new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Starring a hilarious Christian Borle as Willy Wonka and with music by Marc Shaiman of Hairspray, the show brings the magic of Willy Wonka's factory to the live stage in clever and fun ways.
You probably know the Golden Ticket story from the Gene Wilder movie or the Johnny Depp remake, or maybe you've even read the novel. As is often the problem with remakes, the Charlie Bucket finds a Golden Ticket pre-story is considerably less fun the third time around. The show tries to make up for this with a ultra-goofy Grandpa Joe (John Rubinstein) and his three elderly backup jokesters, but it's still a bit boring waiting for Charlie and the others to at last reach the Wonka factory.
It takes all of Act One for that to happen but when Willy Wonka finally takes the stage, his wacky, hyper, exciting presence saves the show and, ultimately, makes sitting through the first half worth it.
Christian Borle's performance is inspired more by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane than Gene Wilder. He is far from Johnny Depp's low-key psychopathic Wonka and prefers over-the-top jokes and caricature impressions to subtle strangeness or quiet creeping. There is no glint of murderous intent in his eyes, or descent into hell; instead, Borle's performance is aimed directly at the kids in the audience. Slapstick, goofy and light, this Wonka's jokes come straight from a career character-actor, and a good one.
Borle's credits include the original Not Dead Fred/Herbert/French Guard in Spamalot, a Tony-winning William Shakespeare in Something Rotten and a Tony-winning Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher. In Charlie, he is the star and the engine of the fun.
The music is average—it'll please the kids in the audience but it's nothing new. However, Broadway's Wonka factory loses none of its magic to a lack of Hollywood CGI. The stage show is full of clever tricks and illusions to match its movie forebears, like when Bad Child #4, Mike Teavee (an obnoxious juvenile delinquent obsessed with teenage technology: smartphone, drones, etc. The American Gods Technical Boy, minus the vape), jumps into Wonka's machine and sends himself into the TV, miniaturized. After dancing from screen to screen during an Oompa-Loompa song like he's in a Blue Man Group show, Mike's mom pulls a squealing, squirming hand-held Mike out from behind the screen and carries him offstage to the hysterical laughter of all of the kids and many of the adults.
The Oompa-Loompa's are another hilarious illusion, similar to an act that appeared on America's Got Talent only a few weeks ago. Each bad child's demise happens with special effects and fun magic tricks that save the show from its slow first act. When the abridged ending comes and Charlie puts on his purple jacket, the feeling of wonder comes from the show's magic and the goofiness of its lead. You forgive the first act because of the second and wander out of the theatre like you're wandering out of a place of magic into the un-magical streets of Midtown.
See Charlie & the Chocolate Factory at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
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