Let’s face it, anyone trying to fill the shoes of Gene Wilder is going to have a pretty rough go of it. As the bizarre and bitter confectioner with a sweet chewy center, Wilder’s Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s 1971 movie musical was scrumdiddlyumptious perfection. Like the Roald Dahl book upon which it was based (albeit slightly less tart), the film about a poor kid whose fantasy of stepping inside Wonka’s dream factory was a candy-coated cautionary tale: Spoiled brats are punished, pulverized, and pulped, while the virtuous Charlie is given the ultimate reward. Now as then, it’s a message that’s so urgent and on point for parents of entitled have-it-all-want-more kiddies that it’s hard to begrudge anyone who wants to take another stab at the story. But again, those are some big shoes…
And so, in this very busy Broadway season, arrives the splashy new musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who won a Tony together for Hairspray). The roles are mostly well played, David Grieg’s book is fine, the songs are serviceable, and the sets are fairly clever, but none of it is…transporting. To stretch the sweet-tooth metaphor as far as a piece of saltwater taffy, the new Charlie is the Broadway version of a Whitman’s sampler: A few mouth-watering delights; far too many disappointing nougats. Kids will probably enjoy it a lot more than their more discerning parents.
Hands down, the best thing about the new production (which originated in London in 2013 under director Sam Mendes) is Christian Borle as Wonka. With his natty purple-velvet tails, top hat, and cane, he’s a slightly mad maestro of milk chocolate. Borle, who won Tonys for both Something Rotten! and Peter and the Starcatcher, handles the near-impossible task remarkably well. During the rat-a-tat Act II opening song, “Strike That, Reverse It,” he takes on the pattery, tongue-twister lyrics with impressive ease. And he has just the right glimmer of menace in his eyes as he sizes up his pint-size guests like a hungry wolf.
Apart from his performance, the only other real showstopping attraction is the Oompa Loompas, which are played by kneeling actors not unlike the Fred Astaire “Triplets” number from The Bandwagon. It’s an old-school, analog bit of stage wizardry that walks on the right side of the line between dazzling and hokey. Less successful are the songs (Shaiman, of course, has had a legendary career, but Charlie isn’t his finest hour) and Greig and director Jack O’Brien’s knee-jerk impulse to contemporize the story with social media references seems off — idiot box junkie Mike Teavee is now hooked on his smartphone like a Trumpian Twitter addict while gum-snapping Violet Beauregarde is now obsessed with becoming a Kardashian-style Youtube star. Meanwhile, greedy mean girl Veruca Salt is an insatiable Boris-and-Natasha style Russian ballerina and the Bavarian blimp Augustus Gloop (played by the scene-stealing F. Michael Haynie) is a yodeling simp with sausages hanging around his neck like a garland.
As for Charlie Bucket, he’s more or less how you remember him – a timeless and penniless naif whose hopes can’t and won’t be extinguished by the cold world or another dinner of cold cabbage soup. He’s being played by three different child actors in the production (Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Sell, and Ryan Foust — who was the “Ryan” on stage for the preview I attended). It’s those familiar elements that seem to play the best. The show opens with Borle’s Wonka crooning a soft, lyrical version of “The Candy Man” and the musical highlight in the second act (which is far better than the treacly and slow-footed first act) is his rendition of “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film — a soaringly melancholy ballad dedicated to the dreamers in the audience. As good as Borle’s version is, Wilder still owns it. That may not be surprising. But what is is how flat most of the musical feels. From the moment the curtain raises until the moment it finally drops, there’s a sense that something is missing. Something magical. What the musical really needs is a big gulp of Wonka’s own “Fizzy Lifting Drink.” C+