'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' was one of my favourite movies when I was growing up. It's quite possible it was one of yours too. And let's be clear, I'm talking about the 1971 classic starring Gene Wilder, not the monstrosity that was Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. The 2017 musical adaptation unfortunately does not hold a candle to the original material from whence it came.
Let's start with what 'does' work. The cast is good. Despite the very thinly drawn characters, they each make the best of what they're given. Highlights include Jayde Westaby as Mrs TeaVee and Jayme-Lee Hanekom as Violet. Lucy Maunder as Charlie Bucket's mother is exceptional. Even though her character is still so thinly drawn that she isn't worthy of a first name, Maunder's performance is honest, loving and beautiful. Her mellifluous vocals soar through Act One (Ms. Bucket isn't in Act Two at all because...reasons) and her interactions with Charlie are sincere and heartwarming.
The Oompa Loompas are very cleverly designed and a joy to watch. Overall, the ensemble do a solid job of trying to make lemonade out of some seriously sour lemons.
And that's where the list of 'Things that are good about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the musical' ends.
Now on to quite literally everything else....
Musicals which are designed for children need to engage them on three levels - a punchy script, catchy songs and a visually engaging combination of sets and costumes. Penned by David Greig, the script for Charlie et. al crawls towards the final curtain at a painstakingly slow pace. The entirety of Act One is about Charlie wanting a gold ticket, then finding the golden ticket, then when we finally get to the factory - it's interval. Right before that curtain so mercifully drops to the floor - allowing us all to run for more wine and sugar - is the big reveal of Wonka himself. Except it's not really a 'reveal' given that we saw him at the very start of the show and watched him transform into the quite unnecessarily insensitive Candy Man - (dressed as The Candy Man, Wonka does literally nothing but sweep, and tease Charlie about being impoverished).
Charlie and the Bucket clan all sport dinky-di Aussie accents, with an addiction to jokes about Australian historical figures. Willy Wonka is a chocolatier who has been hauled up in his factory for decades down the road from the Bucket house. Wonka is American, as are the reporters, which means that either there's a world famous American chocolatier living in Australia, or there's a family of impoverished Skippies slumming it in Downtown LA. Either way, Charlie's message to the world is 'How d'ya do?' so I guess where this unnamed land is located is anyone's bet.
The songs are disappointingly forgettable, which is quite shocking given then are written by the same talents that gave us Hairspray and the songs of Bombshell in the NBC series Smash (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The best song in the show is still by far 'Pure Imagination' - the only song that survived from the movie - but that song is overshadowed by the final problem in this trifecta of bad artistic choices: the (lack of) set.
Tony Award nominated Mark Thomson designed the set and costumes for this rendition of Charlie and the (very underwhelming) Chocolate Factory. The costumes are beautiful - the sparkles on Violet's tracksuit and Veruca's tutu are a dazzling highlight. The set....is...well...the best way to put it into perspective is the facade of Wonka's factory is almost the height of Wonka himself.
The chocolate forest is one dwarfed truck in the middle of a vacuous space with a large piece of brown fabric hanging from the top of the proscenium, posing as the chocolate river (I wish I was joking). The idea that we as an audience need to get in touch with our "Pure Imaginations" was, by this point, like many of the jokes, stretched a bit too far.
The reason for importing American actor Paul Slade Smith to play Willy Wonka remains a mystery. Why Australia seems so hell bent on importing leading actors in roles that would be perfectly cast-able here, we may never know.
For anybody that holds the 1971 classic close to their hearts, this show is certain to be a disappointment. To the sleeping children beside me, one could assume they agree. This is so incredibly unfortunate given the lack of major support that is placed behind original Australian works, yet somehow highly criticised works such as this show, become the recipients of significant backing. But that's a discussion for another article...
Photos: Jeff Busby
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