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Theater

Broadway's Willy Wonka opens his factory — first look

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Joan Marcus

Whatever your favorite fascination may be from Roald Dahl’s candy chronicle, you’ll find it on display at the rock-candy concert inside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has finally bubbled up on Broadway.

“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never seen a show that looks like this in my life,” says the show’s director Jack O’Brien, who reunites once more with Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, as well as bookwriter David Greig in his Broadway debut, for the next creative iteration of Dahl’s iconic fate-and-fortune fable, opening April 23 to those with golden TKTS.

“This world of Roald Dahl has tentacles that go deep,” remarks the director. “The audiences come in with such incredible affection for these characters and a kind of keen anticipation — not that they’re going to be disappointed, but they want to encounter the characters again. The Gloops appear and the place goes wild. The Oompa Loompas run onstage and people go nuts. I don’t know that I’ve ever done a piece, even Hairspray, that was that beloved.”

More than 50 years after Dahl’s book was published, the first incarnation of Charlie onstage opened in London in 2013, helmed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes. Scheduling conflicts and a too-big-for-Broadway design meant that, in its American premiere, O’Brien was eventually offered the task of reimaging Wonka’s world for the States. “I had this conversation with Sam — if Sam were to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I were to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’d be diametrically opposite, but they’d still both be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I think that’s what we’re doing here,” he says. “This piece is a classic, period, and I’m doing my version, as he did his, and the piece itself has a large enough heart to accommodate both of us.”

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O’Brien’s version markets more in imagination than representation. “The London vision might have been more literal,” he says. “I like looking at things like color or design or imagination or proportion from Charlie’s position.” Emphasizing this pure POV, it helps that Charlie is the only actual child onstage in this production; O’Brien cast three tweens (Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust, and Ryan Sell) to rotate in the title role opposite four millennial adults who, he says, alleviate some of the guilt from the terrible fates that befall Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle), Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie), Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison), and Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella). “You don’t want to necessarily throttle a child, but an irritating adult gives a wonderful possibility for the audience and Willy to let all their anger out,” chuckles O’Brien.

Willy Wonka here is played by Christian Borle, a two-time Tony-winning stage mainstay whose career straddles the line between leading man and character actor. O’Brien says there’s a shared energy between Borle and the iconic performance of Gene Wilder, while Borle insists he’s finding inspiration in a different comedy icon. “The only words that I think of that come close to approximating what [this version] is are two simple words: Bugs Bunny,” says the actor, who in one scene asked the props team to create a huge red cartoon hammer with which Wonka bonks Augustus Gloop’s pudgy wandering fingers. “As we were building gags, I realized that the spirit of Willy Wonka is indomitable and he’s a rascal, and so a lot of the comedy ethos is skewing Looney Tunes for me.”

Comedy is a welcome return for Borle, who earned his dual Tonys for showstopping comic roles (in Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten!) but arrives at the Chocolate Factory following a significant dramatic departure earlier this season. After playing a grieving gay father in the fall revival of William Finn’s Falsettos, Borle is noticing the difference between that emotional burden and Wonka’s sugar high. “Jackie Hoffman, who plays Mrs. Teavee and is inspired in this show, had a friend come who was a psychopharmacologist, and she said my eyes were different as Willy Wonka,” Borle shares. “Apparently, what was happening behind my eyes was different than when I came out for my bow. She said, ‘I’ve seen it with drugs and psychopharmacology, that change in people.’ And so I was obviously very happy, first of all, that I don’t come off as Willy Wonka in real life, but I think this one is easy to step out of because it’s cathartic in an uplifting way.”

Joan Marcus

A similar unexpected jubilance arrived for Borle the day he first donned Wonka’s costume, an eccentric ensemble of purple velvet designed by Mark Thompson: “It was actually pretty glamorous. We’d done mockups and little fittings on pieces here and there, but the first time I put it on, in this old abandoned factory in Brooklyn, I saw myself in the wig and costume and it really was one of those life moments where you step back and go, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe I’m Willy Wonka.’”